Published on June 5th, 2015 | by TLV News0
Our Food Cultures: A Southern Foodways Alliance Story (by Elizabeth Tettleton)
My arm ached from holding the Lodge cast iron platter as I passed the Biscuit Love Tennessee beaten biscuits, sandwiched with the aged Egerton ham in the crowded front room of The Powerhouse.
An hour before, my boss John Currence and our catering director Adam Griffith spent close to an hour excavating small bits of the Egerton bounty. Each labored piece surrendered a piece of a legacy I was completely unaware of. John offered me a slice to sample. The tender, buttery morsel hit my palate, and melted into a puddle of salty, smoky, lard-like meat.
As I passed the ham biscuits that night to the 17th annual Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) Friday awards attendees, I was completely unaware of the treasure I was carrying. I repeated what John had told me about the ham to each person.
“This is an aged and cured Egerton ham, sandwiched between a hand-beaten Biscuit Love biscuit,” I said.
One lady asked if it was John Egerton’s last ham, and teared up as she mentioned his name. I directed her to John T. Edge, the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, for the meats full lineage. One gentleman began to educate and interest me more on the curer of my ham, and told me of his passing not quite a year prior.
My professor Blair Hobbs encouraged my Beginning Poetry class to read Natasha Tretheway’s work, I quickly became interested in her background. A few NPR stories later, I was her biggest fan. When my professor told us of the opportunity to hear her read at the 16th Annual SFA Symposium, I reorganized my priorities.
I heard Natasha read the words of her fellow poet, Jake Adam York, reading poems he had written before his death not quite a year before. She gripped her audience with her passionate reading, and the SFA attendees mourned his loss as she grieved each syllable. And it was then that I knew why people came for miles to Symposium every year—they came to gather in community, to eulogize, to congregate, to commemorate three things—culture, food, and the people passionate about making it happen.
Freshman year at Ole Miss my English Composition teacher had selected food-themed literature, winning us over with a donut fed free-write session the first day. Our literature included Best Food Writing 2008, an anthology edited by Holly Hughes, which changed my life as a writer and perception of food culture. While all of my peers were becoming Vegans over their first exposure to Michael Pollan and Food, Inc., I was obsessing over a character named Pableaux Johnson who lived in New Orleans. One story near the back of the anthology, Red Beans and Rice: Rising to the Occasion by Sara Roahen, took me to a food, a culture, and a place I had never been before. I wanted to recreate that experience for others. I wanted to meet Pableaux and be invited to eat at his table on a Monday.
Second day of the 17th Symposium, I met him, but until late that evening, Pableaux Johnson was purely mythical to me. I was assisting Charles Phan of Slanted Door’s setup in Taylor. Pableaux thanked me for his morsel, and said that it was “better than Jesus!” I thanked him, jokingly stating that it couldn’t possibly be that good. Of course, that was before I had tried a bite.
Later that evening, I glanced at the official 17th Annual SFA Symposium booklet on my cell phone, glancing through the bios of the many speakers I wouldn’t have time to meet, the chefs I was working beside each day, and there it was: Pableaux Johnson is a photographer and food travel writer from New Orleans who hosts famous Monday-night red-bean socials.
I had missed out on getting to know Pableaux at a booth in Taylor as the Pableaux that I knew as a character in a story. Possibly at the 18th Symposium I can talk with this inimitable Pableaux Johnson. Maybe I will tell him of my food writing efforts. Perhaps I will buy him a bag of Camellia’s red beans, and ask what magic he lovingly crafts into each pot. Maybe he will make me some, or invite me to New Orleans to his legendary table. Maybe I will get to know the Pableaux Johnson—next year at Symposium.
This article was printed in The Local Voice #229 (published May 14, 2015).
To download the PDF of this issue, click here.