Photo by Emilie Dayan,/i>
John T. Edge is hustling chairs from the second floor of the Visual Arts Center of Richmond down to the courtyard, where the final meal of the Southern Foodways Alliance Summer Symposium will be held.
Although it's been a brutally hot day, aside from the occasional sweaty slippage of his distinctive glasses, Edge doesn't seem bothered by the heat, and his Chucks move fast up and down the stairs.
Perhaps his immunity to Richmond's summer heat and humidity is because for the rest of the year, Edge lives in Oxford, Miss., where he's the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization that studies Southern food culture and is based at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.
He originally came to Richmond last summer, along with SFA event coordinator Melissa Hall, to scout the city as a possible site for one of the SFA's field trips, experiential trips throughout the South designed around the SFA's particular academic focus that year and offered to members.
In the fall, the SFA holds a more formal symposium in Oxford. It's become more and more popular, and when the symposium sold out within minutes last year, Edge and Hall decided to rethink the Richmond field trip. They expanded its scope and added space for more attendees — 150 in all. In line with the 2013 focus, "Women, Work and Food," the summer symposium became a celebration of the professional women of Richmond, past and present.
"Oftentimes when … Americans talk about women and food, they talk about women as stewards of hearth and home," says Edge, "instead of focusing on women as entrepreneurs and chefs [or] oyster shuckers. … We recognized a responsibility to tell [the other] stories about women at work in the world of food."
Why Richmond? "It's the story of places like Sally Bell's, the story of people like Mary Randolph," he says, "and those stories, those narratives — those women —challenged us to come to Richmond."
In the months prior to the start of the symposium, oral historian Sara Wood came to town to interview local entrepreneurs like Ida MaMusu, owner of Africanne on Main; Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange; and Stella Dikos and Katrina Giavos, owners of Stella's — among others. Wood's videos will join the other oral histories that form part of the core of the SFA's work — documenting the stories of Southerners and Southern food traditions before they're lost. "Too often, I think, we frame Southern food in a gauzy recollection of some gauzy past," Edge says about much of the writing about the South.
For an event focused on food, eating, of course, was a priority. At The Jefferson, which served as headquarters, Walter Bundy laid out Southern-themed breakfasts (think eggs Sally Lunn or chicken-fried croaker). Tanya Cauthen of The Belmont Butchery smoked what looked like an entire side of beef on that Friday night at a dinner inspired by one of the earliest and most influential American cookbooks, The Virginia House-wife , written by Richmonder Mary Randolph. The Roosevelt's Lee Gregory surprised everyone on Saturday with a vegetarian luncheon that paid homage to partner Kendra Feather's first restaurant, Ipanema Café, and later that night, MaMusu offered a buffet of dishes from her native Liberia.
"As always, my favorite thing about SFA events," says Sheri Castle, longtime SFA member, former SFA speaker and author of The New Southern Garden Cookbook, "is the incomparable insider's tour of new places, experiences that I could never discover on my own."
Mary Randolph and her early 1880s cookbook, as well as Richmond's slavery system, came alive in a talk by Leni Sorensen, Monticello's African-American research historian, while The Washingtonian's Todd Kliman, author of The Wild Vine (and the only male speaker SFA will have this year) brought us from the past into the present with his story that traced the Richmond beginnings of the Norton grape, the only native wine grape in the United States, to the surprising woman who single-handedly brought that grape back from obscurity, Chrysalis Vineyards' Jenny McCloud.
Psyche Williams-Forson, American studies associate professor at the University of Maryland and author of the book, Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power, spoke about the Gordonsville waiter-carriers, African-American women who carved out their own niche industry by making fried chicken early in the morning, which they then sold to rail passengers.
"You get a nice cross-fertilization [at SFA events], I think," says Williams-Forson, "in a discussion space where real learning can take place."
"From the opening talk … we were challenged to forget about the statues of men on horses and to think about other ways of seeing the place," says Edge. "I hope that we framed Richmond in a way that people who are curious about American food culture and who are students of Southern foodways know that to get a complete picture of the state of Southern food, you need to include Richmond in your calculations."