For many, when food and the South are mentioned in the same sentence, images of home-cooked meals, family gatherings and grandma’s secret recipe come to mind. For those involved with the Southern Foodways Alliance, however, those two words spark discussion and analysis of the South’s history, social structure and ever-evolving culture.
The Southern Foodways Alliance, celebrating its 25th year of operation, was created in 1999 by author John T. Edge, who was working on his master’s degree in Southern Studies at the time. Initially a symposium for Edge’s thesis, the SFA started as a small group of people who wanted to celebrate and study the food, the foodways of the American South and their implications on how the region is understood.
SFA Associate Professor of Southern Studies Catarina Passidomo shed light on what the organization seeks to accomplish now.
“Its mission has evolved somewhat over the more than 20 years of its existence, and its current mission is to document, study and explore the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. So it does that in a range of ways,” Passidomo said.
Staying true to Edge’s initial pursuit, one way the SFA promotes its mission is through an annual fall symposium held in Oxford.
“The symposium brings people in from all over the country and even internationally,” Passidomo said. “It’s organized around a particular theme. This year, it’s going to be restaurants, and it’s always a big theme that they interpret in a lot of surprising or different kinds of ways.”
Themes from years past have ranged from barbecue to the future of the South.
The SFA offers a multitude of ways for readers and listeners to explore Southern foodways outside of the annual symposium, including “Gravy,” a podcast that releases multiple episodes monthly. Additionally, SFA members can receive a quarterly “Gravy” newsletter in print. Both are used to share oral stories of the American South and how the region intersects with food systems.
“The SFA collects oral histories of people who work within the Southern food system,” Passidomo said. “Everyone from oystermen to food writers to chefs to dishwashers, people who are involved in Southern food in some capacity.”
SFA also creates films documenting food culture in the South.
“I went to undergraduate college at Washington and Lee University, where for the first time I was exposed to Southern culture as being significant for how people understood themselves and their place in the world,” Passidomo said. “So I thought it was really exciting to get to be in an interdisciplinary Southern Studies program. I was familiar with the work of the SFA, and I thought it would be a cool and unique opportunity to get to interface with people who are doing work that’s public-facing.”
With so many different resources open to the public, SFA helps people understand the importance of the customs and traditions about what, how, when and why they eat the things that they do.
“The SFA is creating work that is not intended for people in the Ivory Tower, and I like that about it,” Passidomo said.
For further information on in-person events, visit the Southern Foodways Alliance’s website.
Editor’s Note: John T. Edge is the creator of the Southern Foodways Alliance. Due to a reporting error, the creator was misidentified in an earlier version of this story.