Chef Frank Lee said it best. The Music to Your Mouth festival that took place at Palmetto Bluff in Bluffton last weekend felt like a continuation of the Salute to Southern Chefs, a culinary showcase that Chef Louis Osteen and then Bob Waggoner hosted annually at Charleston Grill. That was back in the late '90s, when the new Southern food movement was just gaining traction, when grits and collards were being rediscovered, and when the Southern Foodways Alliance was just being founded by a coalition of "traditional and nouvelle cooks and diners, up-scale and down-home devotees, meat-eaters and vegetarians, drinkers and abstainers, growers and processors, scholars and foodlorists, gourmands and the health-conscious, women and men, blacks and whites and other identity groups, one and all" — as John Egerton put it in his invitation to that inaugural gathering of Southern foodies.
All across the South, folks were realizing that our ways had a unique flavor, which was best expressed through our food. The Salute to Southern Chefs gathered the top cooks from the region for a tasting and celebration. The event eventually went kaput, but the idea remained a good one, and the banner is being taken up these days by other festivals.
Since being founded in 2005, Charleston Wine + Food Festival has been evolving and is really starting to embrace its Southernness. Last year, Martha Lou Gadsden of Martha Lou's Kitchen received an award for her place in our local food culture, and for 2012, the lineup of events has a much more local-oriented vibe. The time for Bobby Flay to star in this festival has long passed; we have homegrown headliners now. Chefs like Mike Lata of FIG, Sean Brock of Husk and McCrady's, Frank Lee of SNOB, and Jeremiah Bacon of Oak and the Macintosh are known nationwide, and they were prominently displayed at the Music to Your Mouth (MTYM) festival last weekend.
Once hosted by Tyler Florence, another homegrown food celebrity (Florence grew up in Greenville and attended Johnson & Wales in Charleston), MTYM has also evolved (as all good festivals do) and is bringing together a vibrant mix of Southern food. By the time I arrived on Friday night, there'd already been a week of fun events, from a bourbon cruise to a porching party to a North and South Wine Dinner smackdown that pitted two sommeliers, one Northern and one Southern (Clint Sloan from Husk & McCrady's), against each other.
On Friday night, the Southern Foodways Alliance, which has grown in importance since Egerton sent that aforementioned letter to his hodgepodge collection of Southerners, presented a Sip n' Screen symposium. The SFA has a multi-pronged mission, but one of its tenets is to "deliver pleasures that are substantive and contextual," and that they did on Friday.
First, we watched two films by Joe York — one about pig farmer and tango dancer Emile DeFelice, who runs Caw Caw Creek farm, the other about barbecue pitmaster Rodney Scott of Scott's Variety Store in Hemingway, S.C. Afterward, Felice and Scott answered questions as we drooled at the thought of getting to eat a slowly cooked, well-raised heirloom pig that was slathered in love (as Scott refers to what his mopping sauce is made of).
SFA Director John T. Edge also hewed close to another mission: being honest when it comes to difficult subjects. An audience member asked Scott if his customers ever asked about the pigs and where they came from. Scott seemed tickled at the idea: "My customers don't care about the type of pig." And for Scott, he says the best kind of pig is a done pig. Edge got to the meat of the matter, declaring that this question of where the pig comes from is a middle class one. It's not something poorer communities are going to care that much about right now.
After more discussion and lots of laughter (fueled by the bourbon, no doubt), the crowd left the tiny church building where the screening was held to head next door to an outdoor pig roast on the bluff of the May River. From whole grouper to whole hog, the food spread was authentic and delicious. Watching a crowd of winemakers and sommeliers from other regions of the country dig into plates of cornbread and sweet potato casserole was gratifying. Yes, our traditional food is delicious.
The next day, the big event of the weekend took place under a massive tent on the grounds of Palmetto Bluff Inn. Chefs from all over the South showed up and put on quite a culinary feast. Ashley Christiansen, chef/owner of Poole's Downtown Diner in Raleigh, impressed with an oxtail gelee, cauliflower custard, chervil oil, and truffle shavings. That bite proved with ease that she is indeed in the same league as Brock and Lata. Next to her, Jeremiah Langhorne, the chef de cuisine at McCrady's, was plating beef tartare with fried beef tendon (a most delicious little bite that's like a cross between popcorn and pork rind). Lata had a hearty pot of butter bean pasta e fagioli, while Kevin Gillespie of Woodfire Grill in Atlanta had a fiery flavor bomb of a dish that topped creamy grits with hot chiles, oyster mushrooms, and a sprinkling of crispy pig skin. It was definitely a dish worthy of a young buck. The older guard was represented by guys like Bill Smith of Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill. He kept it simple with a respectable version of classic banana pudding; his fluffy meringue and creamy custard separated it from the standard version on the barbecue buffet. Taken in its entirety, the spread put the evolution of Southern food on display. There were classic Southern ingredients like grits, pork (a Benton's bacon macaroon?!), and catfish, but there was also a wide variety of techniques, talents, and points of view putting those ingredients to use.
The weekend wrapped up on Saturday night with a classic Lowcountry oyster roast under a grand old oak. Quintessential. And that about sums up the weekend in a nutshell. The Music to Your Mouth Festival at Palmetto Bluff is all about the South. Granted, it's the upscale, privileged South, because tickets ain't cheap, but it's the South nonetheless. And it tastes damn good.