By Sarah White
With apologies to Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, a Vietnam war novel/memoir that I was reading while on this jaunt. Bold sentences are lifted from his opening pages and used as writing prompts.
Soleil Ho, restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, carried a laptop full of work to stay current on while away from her post, plans to catch up with her former partner in the podcast Racist Sandwich, and hopes of meeting up with friends. She also carried my phone number in her cellphone, because I’d offered her a ride from the airport to Oxford Mississippi, where this group was about to convene.
Kiese Laymon carried trepidation about what he would say to a group he anticipated would consist of mainly white, privileged foodies, for whom he would give the opening keynote from the porch of Rowan Oaks, William Faulkner’s home. Faulkner had been no friend to black people, he knew. A few sentences into his speech he looked up suddenly, took note of an elaborate chandelier hanging among the mini-lights strung around the side lawn. “A chandelier, really?” He then took off on an impassioned call for change that people would be talking about for the rest of the symposium. Unfortunately Soleil and I arrived late and missed it.
We did arrive just in time to take seats as Bill Briand, executive chef at Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina in Orange Beach, Alabama scooped creamy oyster stew into our bowls, accompanied by spinach salad with creole-mustard vinaigrette and root beer-roasted sweet potatoes. The executive director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, John T. Edge, actually slid into the empty seat next to me. “I like to sit with people I’m not acquainted with,” he said. John T. carried good intentions, a warm heart, and the double moniker that southern custom allows.
What had Chef Bill and his crew carried, to prepare this delicious meal from a field kitchen set up on the side lawn of Rowan Oaks? What had the other chefs who served us breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the next 48 hours schlepped? Had they carried knife-rolls in their luggage, gallons of zip-lock bags full of herbs and spices? Had they drop-shipped foodstuffs from their provisioners? Were they carrying worries about whether the quality of what arrived would be a match for the expectations carried by the attendees?
What had Maneet Chauhan, the Punjabi pride of Nashville, packed to create a four-course meal and plate it in stacked tiffins, which were ours to carry home? What did she carry with her to create roasted sweet potato chaat, collard green and black-eyed pea curry, and pumpkin cheesecake gulab jamun?
The things we carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were raincoats and umbrellas for the predicted heavy rain, shawls or sweaters for the chilly meeting hall, remedies for hangovers and indigestion from three days of chef-spotlighted meals and three nights of open bar. Some carried iPads, some a notebook. Those presenting carried the tools of their trade—this one a memoir marked up with sticky-noted pages for his reading, that one fears about A/V fiascos and a thumb drive loaded with his documentary film, that other one a sheaf of nametags on lanyards she would hand out to her oral history theater troupe Higher Ground when they arrived from Harlan, Kentucky. The arts were woven into the Symposium along with the serious inquiries into topics related to the Symposium’s theme of “Food Is Work.”
They were called foodies. Some left behind kitchens, others computers. Some left behind piles of work as cookbook authors, food writers, and critics. Some left behind ivory towers full of papers to write or grade. Grad students hoped to find a seat at the table of food studies. Professors climbed down from their lofty perches to speak in dense academese. Here, food wasn’t just food, it was “contextualization of the narrative of southern food culture.”
What we carried varied by mission. Some of us were hoping to make connections and carried business cards eager to exchange. Some carried books they hoped to sell. I carried hopes that, as I talked about my Glory Foods book with everyone I met, someone would say, “I was just speaking with an agent who would love that, let me introduce you.”
Some carried nothing but the expectation of a good time. The jesters at this court were a pair of women from Charlotte who had been given tickets due to a foodie friend’s last-minute change of plans. The two wandered from talk to meal to performance, dazed by the heady blend of friendliness and eccentricity. We were all, even I, a poor wayfaring stranger from far outside this world, carrying intent to do what bright, curious people gather to do: learn, connect, and enjoy.
I had a very good time. Every conversation started with “where are you from” and “what brought you here.” I enjoyed the reaction whenever I said “I’m writing a book on Glory Foods” and they replied, “I know Glory!” Enough people mentioned they had read my article on the start-up company’s first run at canning Glory’s greens in the summer issue of the association’s magazine to make me feel like I belonged. It was a glorious victory lap to mark the last dying ripple of my Big MFA Adventure.
My imagined scene with the introduction to an agent never happened, but enough connecting did happen to leave me optimistic that, with follow-through, my investment will be repaid. Now, join me in visualizing the scene, someday a few years from now, when I return with my co-author Dan Charna. We’ll be carrying marked-up copies of our newly published book, ready for reading.
© 2019 Sarah White