Ten years ago, a University of Mississippi grad student decided to put together a symposium about Southern food.
The event would bring together historians, scholars, anthropologists and writers passionate about deconstructing Southern cuisine. They would, in effect, ponder the meaning of grits.
The foodies arrived, and between feasts — a catfish fry, a meal featuring all parts of a pig — they nibbled on the idea that, as the director of the school’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture later put it to a reporter in Atlanta, “Foodways are just as important as Faulkner in understanding the South.”
These days, the Southern Foodways Alliance — a result of the symposium — produces documentary films, publishes books, offers festivals and food tours, and brings attention to Southern food as something worthy of protection.
The New York Times has picked up on the alliance’s work, as has Southern Living Magazine and the Wall Street Journal. One writer from Atlantic Monthly dubbed it “this country’s most intellectually engaged food society.”
So what does this have to do with Tucson?
Our savory food region is on its way to having a similar alliance.
Last month, about 40 native food advocates converged at Rex Ranch in Amado to create Sabores Sin Fronteras, or Flavors Without Borders — a bi-national alliance to document, celebrate and conserve farming and folk traditions along the U.S. and Mexico borderlands from Calfornia to Texas.
The group, from far and wide, included ethnobotanists, poets, foragers, cookbook writers and a guy who drives a chichiron mobile — a vehicle poetically fueled by refuse from fried pork skins, otherwise known as chichirones.
Other invitees included Chef Janos Wilder of the upscale Janos Restaurant and Big Jim Griffith, who founded the popular annual event Tucson Meet Yourself.
As for me, I invited myself, and the creative energy I felt among the gatherers overwhelmed. Frankly, I would have been dazzled if theirs had been an organization devoted exclusively to the artichoke.
The fledgling alliance owes its start to Gary Nabhan, founder of Native Seeds SEARCH, a local seed bank. Upon moving back to Tucson recently, the University of Arizona alumnus started looking for ways to collaborate with “the funnest people I know with the richest ideas.”
This led him to the idea of documenting food innovations at the U.S.-Mexico border, both historical and ongoing. Oral histories could shine light on pockets of indigenous people in Mexico’s mountainous parts who still eat the way their forbears have eaten for generations. They could also feature the Tucson area’s 200-some nomadic hotdog stands that keep coming up with new ways to dress a dog.
The new group is affiliated with the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center, just as the Southern Foodways Alliance affiliates with the University of Mississippi.
Workshops at the retreat focused on identifying skills and passions within the group and brainstorming about a possible alliance structure.
Participants seemed to agree that the time is right for Sabores Sin Fronteras — that ecotourism is popular, and people want to know the stories behind their food.
Initial areas of interest included gathering oral histories, writing about food, bringing farming to schools, holding festivals and giving tours of places where native foods grow wild.
I’m excited to see what will happen as people with diverse backgrounds and traditions meet one another to exchange ideas across borders.
That recipe, I would say, is bound to have flavor.