Saturday, October 20

Minds and Tummies Are Full This Morning at the SFA Symposium

We began this morning with Royal Cup coffee from Birmingham, Alabama—okay, not grown in Birmingham, but roasted there—and pastrami biscuits from Neal's Deli in Carrboro, North Carolina. Pastrami might seem like a heretical biscuit stuffer in the land of country ham. But Sheila and Matt smoke their own, in a shoebox-sized establishment less than half a mile from Crook's Corner, where Matt's late father Bill Neal was a pioneer in elevating Southern cuisine. And their biscuits are damn good, too. They've converted scores of the country-ham faithful in Carrboro and Chapel Hill, and today they did the same in Oxford. For today, at least, Southern-smoked pastrami belongs in the barbecue pantheon.

Below, a quick round-up of the morning's presentations, with highlights and favorite quotes. We'll podcast them soon via Soundcloud and iTunesU and notify you here on the SFA blog and on Twitter and Facebook. (If you're not familiar with our speakers already, click here to read their bios.)

George Singleton, on barbecue and becoming a fiction writer:
"Every right of passage I've had, barbecue seems to have been involved. And police officers." George gives barbecue partial credit for launching his writing career, explaining that creative cooks—like those at his favorite hometown barbecue joint—foster creativity in eaters. On the other hand, he said, "'Uh, I'll have a hamburger,' isn't going to foster any creativity in a high-school truant, if you ask me."

Eddie Huang, "fresh off the boat" (in his own words!) and ready to barbecue:
As new immigrants from to the American South from China, said Huang, "barbecue was the first American food my family understood. It's sweet meat! We've got that in Chinese food, too." Later, as a young college graduate making his way in New York, Huang kept a Brinkman smoker on his fire-escape "balcony." No one in his neighborhood had seen a Chinese-American boy smoking turkeys in the West Village, but Eddie didn't let the haters stop him. 

Lolis Elie and John Egerton, the philosopher-kings of Barbecue Nation, presented an interrogatory State of the Barbecue Union. They began by declaring the state of the nation as questionable, but by the end of their tete-a-tete, it was tending toward strong. Both Founding Members of the SFA, Elie and Egerton are our "elder-ish" statesmen of barbecue this weekend. We think they look just as youthful as they did ten years ago at our first barbecue symposium.

Wes Berry is a "Kentucky cowboy" on the mutton-barbecue frontier. He shepherded us through the Commonwealth's varied barbecue terrain, from smoked "city hams" to the aforementioned mutton of Owensboro. He hopes that in addition to bourbon, his state will one day be known for its barbecue prowess. Berry wrote the introduction to the Kentucky leg of our Southern Barbecue Trail, which you can explore here

Gustavo Arellano made a convincing case that Mexicans and Southerners are just brothers from another mother. He spoke of immigration, syncretism, and the many parallels between (U.S.) Southern and Mexican barbecue culture. And we learned that a love of pit-cooked meats isn't all they share. Arellano played us a recording of a popular song from the La Huasteca region of Southeast Mexico, which he compared to Appalachia. Indeed, the fiddle tune and high-pitched male singing voice were evocative of Bill Monroe in another language. "It's the Mexican high lonesome!" exclaimed Arellano.

Jake Adam York, poet of the porcine, brought the morning to a close. With his poetry about food, family, and the transformative power of barbecue, he set the table and said grace. By way of contextualizing his work, York explained, "barbecue and poetry are both occasions to invite grace into our lives." And in barbecue, as in poetry, "if you want it to be good, you have to wait."

We're now polishing off a bounteous lunch of vegetables from North Carolina chef Ashley Christensen. Stay tuned for more eats, drinks, talks, and tunes.