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Southern Foodways Alliance Summer Symposium. The Whiskey Jar.

This past weekend I had the great good fortune to attend the Southern Foodways Alliance Summer Symposium. Long ago in the earliest infancy of my food writing career I knew because of the way I work, I’d more than likely have to focus on just one cause to promote more than any other. It’s how my mind works. When presented with sustainability, local food good corporate bad, evil Monsanto bashing, gluten-free, fat-free, carb-free, vegan only, organic, molecular gastronomy and all the other food causes out there, the only one that really speaks to me is my Southern food heritage.

Southern food got me excited as a kid, and it’s what drives me to write and eat as an adult. For 14 years, the Southern Foodways Alliance has promoted the celebration and preservation of Southern food loudly and proudly. From the first moment I set my eyes on a copy of Cornbread Nation in a Barnes & Noble bookstore, I knew I’d be a member. I knew it was my calling. I knew I’d be a Southern food advocate forever. I spent a few years following the organization, and eventually saved up enough money for dues. This year, I decided it was time to get active.

I signed up for the weekend the minute it was announced. It’s the first time they’ve had a symposium in the summer. And it’s the first time they’ve ever had one in Virginia, picking Richmond as their base city. The first event? Why, it would be in Charlottesville. The topic? Women who work, a program championing female business owners who produce wines, cheeses, vegetables, meats, as well as all the other yummies we enjoy, and lots of talks about the great food women in Virginia’s past. I’d be damned if I was going to miss a chance to crow about my home base, as well as squire about with a bunch of people unfamiliar with my hometown. What an opportunity!

Just one problem. I have horrible social anxiety. Horrible! In fact, part of the reason I became a FOOD writer was because The Hubby is equally passionate about food and most of the time can come with me to the events I attend. I can lean into him the way my dog leans into me during thunderstorms. Except he wouldn’t be attending this event. I would have to go alone.

So it was with great trepidation, tremendous actually that I slunk into the first dinner at The Whiskey Jar and looked around in vain for someone to lean into. Grabbed myself a berry moonshine punch and hoped for some courage. Even a career in fundraising and development (i.e., lots of wine events) has done nothing to ease the anxiety I feel at the thought of having to converse with a bunch of strangers, even if all of us are there for the same reason: we adore Southern food.

And the biggest reason I hate informal dinner gatherings like this? The mad dash for seats. Ugh. Some 200 people descending on a room and trying to jockey for position as to where to sit, and whom to sit with. It sucks. As I was standing there contemplating which seat to choose for dinner, and sweating it, a tall, gregarious woman approached in a long fuchsia scarf and pink spangly jeans. “Dahlin’ now where pray tell did you procure that delicious-looking libation?” she asked sweetly in a heavy Southern accent. I pointed at the direction of the bar, and wished I could be that confident. She was ready for a party and her whole demeanor just screamed, “If you have nothing nice to say, PLEASE sit next to me.” I loved it. And I’d found my seat.

Dinner turned out to be a hoot and a half and pink jeans was a huge reason. Her large personality did a lot to break the ice and helped put me at ease. I was to find out later this attitude is basically the lifeblood of the Southern Foodways Alliance. Wherever they go, the party follows. I encourage every agoraphobic out there to become a member. You won’t regret it.

The other thing that put me at ease was the food. The Whiskey Jar can really cook up a storm! It was homespun without being corny, and full of Southern-fat-is-good-for-you-flavor without being too heavy. Tiny finger sandwiches of BBQ’d rabbit that was by turns creamy and spicy. Imagine a sweeter version of pulled pork with the texture of tuna. Scrumptious! Chard salad from Appalachia Star Farm with velvety cottage cheese from Caromont. Light WhiteWay Bread topped with sorghum butter from Compass Winds. Imagine a light molasses butter, the color of caramel. Maple, molasses, honey, and caramel flavors all play around with the butter and make you want to swoon. I can’t wait to make it at home.

Of course, there were the famous Whiskey Jar collard greens (everyone cheered) and something new to me, Anson Mills Sea Island Peas with bacon and spring onions. Like lentils but with a better chew. Everyone raved and begged for the recipe. It’s my new goal in life to get that recipe and serve it next Thanksgiving. Chef Richey? Can you help a girl out?

The BBQ chicken in sorghum red sauce was tangy and tender and the roasted Rag Mountain Trout was so light and fresh I could swear it was caught out back in some hidden creek in the kitchen.

But the true highlight? DEFINITELY the dessert. A recipe collaboration created by baker Rachel Pennington. Peach trifle consisting of Edna Lewis’s sponge cake, then topped with Mary Randolph’s peach marmalade and vanilla bean custard. An airy sponge of vanilla that melts in your mouth but not before sinking into a sweet peach and vanilla dream. Holy sugarsmacks it was one of the best things I’ve eaten all year. It’s going on my list. They need to add this to the regular menu like yesterday. It tasted like a big ol’ nap! Which coming from me? Is the highest of praise. I usually only eat a taste or two of dessert. This? I. Ate. It. All.

So yeah, all in all the night was a big success. The lovely food artisans got a pretty sash and did their Miss America wave, people scarfed up food and clapped them on the back in congratulations for the good works they’re doing, the chef and his staff trotted out to a standing ovation. Um, why don’t chefs do this every night during service? They should. And one middle-aged woman took a small step toward alleviating her social anxiety. The Veritas Viognier and Foggy Ridge Cider helped. I doubt it will ever be completely gone. I’ll continue to lean into the chatty folks whenever I have to go anywhere. But leaving the event, full moon rising, and The Mall bustling still at 10pm, made me feel really good about myself. And about where I live. We made an excellent impression that night Charlottesville. I wouldn’t be surprised if Summer Symposium 2014 takes place right here in our little ‘ville. Cheers and applause to everyone involved. You certainly deserve it.

Virginia Food Artisans, SFA 2013 Anson Mills Dinner

Kathryn Bertoni, Appalachia Star Farm
Margaret-Anne Burkholder, Compass Winds Sorghum
Diane Flynt, Foggy Ridge Cider
Ellen Nagase, Rag Mountain Trout
Gail Hobbs-Page, Caromont Farm
Sara Miller, Timbercreek Farms
Emily Pelton, Veritas Vineyards
Rachel Pennington, Baker, The Whiskey Jar
Lisa Richey, Red Row Farm
Mary Alissa Wilkins, WhiteWay Bakery

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