James Beard Award-nominated chef Sydney Meers and Oxford’s own James Beard nominee restaurant Saint Leo will pair up for a fundraising dinner tomorrow night supporting the Sarah Isom Center’s LGBTQ+ Arts and Culture fund, in association with OutOxford.
Theresa Starkey, the associate director of the Isom Center, said plans for Pride Weekend began almost as soon as last year’s festivities ended.
“The parade was an amazing experience for many people, both on and off campus. After Pride, people began to reach out to the Isom Center to support the next one,” she said.
One such person was John T. Edge, who tomorrow night’s visiting chef, Sydney Meers, credits as a “superhero in my world for trying to save real Southern culture before it goes.” Edge, the author and director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, led last year’s Pride Parade alongside grand marshall Spencer Pleasants in his red Fiat convertible. After the parade he was soon brainstorming with Starkey on how to collaborate and support Mississippi’s LGBTQ community.
An article featured in food magazine Lucky Peach called “America, Your Food Is So Gay: The story of how three gay men—James Beard, Richard Olney, and Craig Claiborne—became architects of America’s modern food culture” sparked the idea for tomorrow night‘s event.
“’Mississippi, Your Food is Queer’ evolved from our conversation about the article and our belief in the need to make visible the invisible queer hosts of hospitality,” Starkey said.
Pride Week provides a platform for the group to do just that with James Beard-nominated chef and Mississippi native, Meers.
The chef, who grew up in his grandmother’s Senatobia restaurant, said, “Sometimes my mother would wait tables, and she would sit me at the counter, and I would always sneak into the kitchen and watch grandma.”
“I’m pretty much self-taught,” he said. “In my late 30s, I went to culinary school to see what I was missing, and it turned out my grandmother had pretty much covered everything.”
After graduating high school, Meers moved to Alabama to join his sister and brother-in-law, who had opened a restaurant in Birmingham. He said this experience was what ultimately cemented him in his career as a chef.
“She did everything from scratch, grew everything she needed. Pappy had a big farm down the street from the restaurant. They were purely self-sustainable” he said.
He even mentioned that if his grandmother ever had a dish calling for chicken, she would grab one out of the yard (or, if need be, go down the street and find one from the neighbors), promptly snap its neck, pluck and prepare it.
“Everyone is doing farm to table now, and that’s just what I grew up with,” he said.
Meers now owns and operates Stove restaurant in Portsmouth, Virginia, and sells his own line of specialty sauces.
He said he is ready to return to his home state and pair up with Saint Leo owner Emily Blount. The dinner will be served family-style and begin with plates of charcuterie and cheese, served with toasted homemade bread and meat items like Blount’s pork belly, Meers’ country ham and his grandmother’s hamburger relish.
Blount will serve up some of Saint Leo’s staple wood-fired pizzas topped with seasonal fruits and veggies like asparagus and strawberries. Meers will top off the course with some jumbo rock fish striper bass, native to his area in Virginia.
“You can get gulf and East Coast fish easily, but mine will be plucked out of the water and put in big-ass coolers and cut up and grilled fresh with Georgeanne Ross’ grits,” Meers said.
He said he is excited to be cooking in Ross’ hometown of Oxford, where she began the businesses Delta Grind Grits and the Original Grit Girl.
The event begins at 6:30 p.m., and tickets are $65 dollars for four courses. Along with tomorrow night’s dinner, Pride Week will be celebrated with Code Pink at Proud Larry’s, Big Freedia at The Lyric and the second annual Pride Parade on Saturday in a partnership between the Isom Center and OutOxford.
Meers said he is looking forward to his homecoming and seeing the progress Mississippi has made. He explained,“This being the second gay pride event shows that Mississippi has centered a little more and has grown up into the modern world.”