Southern Foodways Alliance: Communion at Dinnertime

The best of southern ambience is casually apparent upstairs, inside Barnard Observatory on the Ole Miss campus. A colorful Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) sign points up a sweeping stair to an octagonal room where a community of folks are intent on expanding what Oral Historian Amy Evans Streeter says is "a fabulous resource." In July 1999, author John Egerton invited fifty people to participate in the formation of a non-profit committed to documenting and celebrating diverse cultures of Southern American Food. Over five hundred oral histories have been collected and stored at the library on campus and are available for in depth research.

Although the concept was not a new one, the gathering assured stability from the start through The Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. The Southern Foodways Alliance has grown steadily with some 800 members throughout the world. Focused on setting the common table - black, white, rich, poor, young and old - the Alliance stage symposia, produce documentary films, collect oral histories and publish collections of the most winsome writing. The unique approach is outlined by SFA in a Statement of Values where they promote "trusting locals," "under a big tent where all may go to learn and cavort" and "delivering pleasures that are substantive and contextual." Such a mindset has harnessed and celebrated the stories that might otherwise waft away.

Beginning with the annual symposium held each October in Oxford, Mississippi, the SFA has educated and encouraged exchange around galvanizing topics. The 2011 theme embraces "The Cultivated South" showcasing the likes of non-traditional farming production. A Foodways Congress is also held in Atlanta including film screenings, lectures and panel discussions. With some 35 short films to date, the institute's Potlikker Film Festivals plays out across the country in sold out venues, providing highlights of the expansive research provided within the Oral History Project. Oral histories have spawned uncommon offers of culinary tourism in the form of southern food trails, such unlikely chronicles as that of the Mississippi Delta Lebanese and regular enlightenments like the podcast, "Okracast," and food letter, "Gravy."

In working for the "greater good" the SFA issues invitations to become a part of the Skillet Brigade, a connective body of volunteers to assist when food is needed. They also extend the Greenhouse Project, a small budget initiative assisting those who would document food stories in their local areas. The Greenshoots Project promotes the work of "emerging farmers, artisans and other producers of southern goods." Throughout the year, diverse SFA awards are given in encouragement to oral subjects along with internships, graduate assistantships and post-doctorate teaching fellowships. When speaking of future prospects, Oral Historian Amy Evans Streeter's eyes widened at plans for SFA's newest discoveries - an effectively managed farmers' market and a resolute women's initiative. She reflects the gift of the journey set out by the original fifty - an "unpredictable, unexpected and endangered expression of people and places through food."