Last weekend, Jackson was full of authors speaking about their work for this year’s Mississippi Book Festival, the annual “literary lawn party” held on and around the Capitol grounds.
Hidden among all the talk about books was a potential path to more productive conversations about important issues.
One particularly interesting panel called “A Culture of Food” involved three authors discussing their recently published books about Southern food culture, but the implications of their ideas go far beyond just literature, Southern studies or foodways.
At the panel’s end, Jessica B. Harris, a culinary historian currently teaching at Queens College, quoted James Baldwin musing that a table is simultaneously the least and most democratic place and then, turned to the crowd and asked, “who do you eat with?”
This was the final remark of her response to an audience question about the role food plays in our contemporary, divided political climate.
A fellow panelist and director of our university’s Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), John T. Edge touches on that question often in his work.
The book Edge spoke about, “The Potlikker Papers,” is more of a history survey than an analysis of the present political climate. In it, he highlights Southern figures who, amidst exclusion, have used the table and its food to engage, and who can serve as necessary inspiration for today.
We live in a time when like-minded bubbles of friends discuss how to deal with their other friends with different beliefs. When it’s not uncommon to digitally unfriend those with opposing opinions. When a toast to the presidency is met with debate.
In these times, we still must find ways to have important discussions about tough and often immediately divisive subjects like politics, morality and inequality.
More and more, I’ve become interested in how food can be the way to have these interactions and who the people are already doing this. Whether as an actual, shared meal or a topic of conversation, food is far less scary to confront than the interactions it can lead to.
This summer, I had the opportunity to attend the SFA’s inaugural documentary film workshop led by Pihakis Foodways documentary filmmaker Ava Lowrey. Through the weeklong program, five other participants and I learned technical editing and filming skills then created our own short films in groups.
Beside the technical skills required to make documentaries, we were also educated about the SFA’s use of stories about food to tease deeper analysis and the concept of the “welcome table,” a metaphorical and sometimes physical place where voices different in race, gender or opinion can come together and hold conversations that otherwise might not happen.
John Egerton, the late founder of the SFA, said that “Southern food now unlocks the rusty gates of race and class, age and sex.”
And that’s what we’re striving for here: finding the keys to unlock the rusty gates of the world. Whether your key is food or any of the countless other topics out there, now is the time to go out, open the gate and talk.
Liam Nieman is a sophomore Southern studies and economics major from Mount Gretna, Pennsylvania.