Millions of acres of corn are planted in the United States each year, making it not only a major facet of the food we eat but also our culture at large.
“Corn as Symbol, Sustenance and Problem,” the theme of the Southern Foodways Symposium this year, will explore all the ways in which corn has and continues to shape our lives and culture.
The symposium will take place Thursday through Sunday, marking the 19th fall symposium hosted by the Southern Foodways Alliance. SFA is an institute of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and hosts events across the country and on campus throughout the year. According to SFA Managing Director Melissa Hall, the center’s purpose is to provide different lenses through which to view the South.
“The traditional lenses have been literature and art and music and photography, and those are perfectly valid ways of understanding this place,” Hall said. “But we believe that food—because it is so accessible, because a meal at a table can cause people to break down their preconceived notions of one another and their barriers—is also a very valid way to get into the issues that we as Southerners have to deal with all the time.”
Each year, the SFA selects a theme for its symposium related to food, sometimes focusing on a larger cultural idea. Sometimes, like this year, the focus shifts to a specific agricultural product or ingredient. Ted Ownby, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, said he thinks this year’s corn topic will provide some interesting avenues for discussion and learning.
“The theme of the symposium, ‘Corn as Symbol, Sustenance and Problem,’ immediately raises the question of what it means to study foodways,” Ownby said. “Is it about cultural meanings, or about production and health, or justice or injustice? Or other things too? Almost everybody eats corn, and lots of people have given it some thought, and this symposium will be a way to think about the range of issues, from prehistory to imagery to federal crop subsidies and questions about public health.”
The event will feature a range of experts showcasing, exploring and discussing the various ways food, specifically corn, emerge in our lives. All attendees will take part in the experience and contribute to the overall success of the event.
“Part of what is so unique about the Southern Foodways Symposium is that everybody is teaching everybody else,” Ownby said. “Restaurateurs and chefs, food journalists and scholars, activists and eaters all have their own perspectives and interests. Instead of a conference with a few experts talking and everyone else listening, all those people have a conversation.”
The SFA Symposium expands boundaries by allowing participants to realize something about themselves and the South. Its design gives people an insight into the region’s culture in a unique, insightful way. Hall’s involvement with the SFA came through such an experience.
“I came to the Southern Foodways Alliance simply because I was a curious eater, and I wanted to understand more about what I was eating and where it came from and what that meant in a larger world,” Hall said. “But what I discovered was…that I had a culture and that I had a culture worth celebrating.”
Symposium tickets are limited, but some are still available, as well as the full schedule of events, at the Southern Foodways website. There are several events within the symposium that are free and open to the public.
The Southern Studies Fantasy Camp is from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. today in the Overby Auditorium. Professors will give attendees a crash course in Southern studies and how they can inform our daily lives.
Shea Hembrey, an Arkansas native famous for his creation and execution of 100 different artistic personalities and the resulting TED Talk, has created a corn-based exhibit. It will be on display at the Powerhouse throughout October.
Finally, Sam Gleaves, an Appalachian singer-songwriter, and Silas House, a New York Times best-selling author, present “Listen to Me: A Folk Opera,” performed at the Lyric at 10 a.m. on Sunday.
The 2016 Fall Symposium promises to be stocked full of excellent speakers, provocative art and, of course, delicious food. Exploring corn has never been as stimulating or tasty.