Food brings people to the table, it brings people to Mississippi, and this weekend it brings them to Oxford.
This weekend Oxford and the University of Mississippi will host the 17th annual Southern Foodways Symposium, titled “Who is Welcome at the Welcome Table?”
“We stage a symposium that’s really academically grounded, journalistically sound and playful at the same time. Our belief is that you can do all three,” Southern Foodways Alliance director John T. Edge said.
The event sold out within three minutes, creating a hype for a progressive event in a broken place, once damaged by racial segregation and oppression.
Although the title and lists of chefs and restaurants may convince participants the focus is food, Edge said otherwise.
“We employ a humanities approach using food as a way to explore race, class, identity, ethnicity and sexuality,” he said. “All of those issues that the humanities confronts, we do, and we choose food as our pathway in.”
This year the symposium focuses on the 50th anniversary of restaurant desegregation and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the past, the symposium has focused on specific regions of the South, the South in black and white and last year, women as entrepreneurs in a modern South.
“The symposium is the best expression of what the SFA intends to do and has been doing for 17 years, which is use food as a portal to get in big stuff; use food to challenge people to think about the region, identity and what role they will play in this region’s future,” Edge said.
The focus is to reflect on restaurant desegregation and then analyze what it means for modern times.
The table seems to have grown since 1964 to a variety of Southerners and even some non-Southerners. This list includes gay cooks, black cooks, white cooks, female cooks and cooks of all social classes.
The main focus of the speakers is to expand on the ideas of a changed South.
The invocation begins with national correspondent for The Atlantic Ta-Nehisi Coates discussing the concept of culinary reparations.
“To me, Coates is a really intellectually engaged American thinker,” Edge said. “I think the most exciting thing for me is to look at his trajectory of his writings and publishings and think ‘why hadn’t he been here already?’”
Coates wrote “The Case for Reparations,” which addresses many of the ideas and struggles faced by the South. He focuses on the past, celebrating some events and learning from others but not having the power to choose to forget any part of our nation’s history. Coates is one of the most in demand speakers right now, especially after being named the most influential modern African-American by The Root.
“I don’t really consider myself an activist, so much as I think of myself as a writer,” Coates said. “I was very honored by the award from The Root. I like to think I got it by just putting my head down and pursuing my work with all the energy I can muster.”
Edge said he wasn’t sure he would be able to access Coates, let alone get him to agree to speak.
He sent Coates an email explaining, “This is a university struggling with issues of racism, a university struggling with a peculiar and troubling history and at the same time, a university with a really bright future – this is the place you want to be to talk about the issues you care about.”
Edge said Coates emailed back within 15 minutes and said he would love to attend and speak.
“What Coates does so well is help you recognize that the back story, that not many of us take time to ponder, reveals these ugly truths about our past and compels us to take responsibility for a better future – that to me is at the core of what I want for our region,” Edge said.
Coates, along with his work as a national correspondent for The Atlantic, is the author of the memoir “The Beautiful Struggle.” His works focus on culture, politics and social issues, specifically issues dealing with race relations.
“He’s doing a really great job of excavating American history and Southern history and framing it in a way to make it relevant in the present day, helping us understand the burdens of racism and the burdens of slavery and how they continue to resonate today and that’s, to me, a message that will find great purchase here,” Edge said.
Along with Coates, Clay Risen will speak on The Bill of the Century, followed by Marcie Cohen Ferris, who will speak on The Hungry South. All three will hone in on the Welcome table and who’s in it: food brings people to the table, and questions of race and history keep people there. At the table this weekend, discussions will be centered around food as a biracial Southern idea.
“Food is the way people represent themselves, offers you a way to think about all those big issues,” Edge said. “Food is the enticement. Food is the hook. But what we really want to do is tell you nuanced and complicated and challenging stories about this region, that compel you to look anew at your place. And understand your role in it and perhaps take a more progressive role in it.”
SFA leads a charge to create a South with a much larger welcome table than its past reflects. With that, many questions of the past and how it affects us today will be asked, working to guide an open discussion on who’s truly welcome at the welcome table.
“To study this place and by revealing truths about this place, and by revealing interdependencies in this region. we work towards a better region,” Edge said.
And of course, plenty of mouths will be fed.
“Looking forward to a good dinner on Friday,” Coates said.
Daily Mississippian Opinion Editor Sierra Mannie will introduce Coates at the event.