I was already hungry when I took my seat on the seventh pew on the right of the Decatur Presbyterian Church.
After a long day fighting the crowds at Dragon*Con with the boys, Carla and I were enjoying a night out, so naturally I dragged her to the Decatur Book Festival and the panel discussion of “The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.” Hosted by the 24-volume epic’s editor, Charles Reagan Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi and co-editor of the original “Encyclopedia of Southern Culture,” the five presenters were luminaries in the field of Southern scholarship:
- John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and author of several books, including “Fried Chicken: An American Story.” In addition to serving as editor of the encyclopedia volume on “Foodways,” he also serves as general editor of the book series “Cornbread Nation: The Best of Southern Food Writing” (volumes 1, 2, and 3 of which are available from the University of North Carolina Press.)
- Ted Ownby, professor of history and southern studies at the University of Mississippi and author of “Subduing Satan: Recreation, Religion, and Manhood in the Rural South, 1865-1920” (UNC Press).
- James G. “Jimmy” Thomas, associate director of publications at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi and managing editor of “The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture” series.
- Larry J. Griffin, is the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences research professor at Georgia Southern University. He holds appointments in the sociology and history departments and directs the university’s American studies program. He edited the volume on social class.
After a brief introduction of the New Encyclopedia by Wilson, who said a new encyclopedia was needed to update the existing “Encyclopedia of Southern Culture” because “It’s a new south,” Edge led all of the panelists in making a brief introduction of the “Foodways” volume.
I snapped a few photos and scribbled some notes, all the while my stomach reminding me that all I had consumed during the day was a solitary doughnut, a banana and a chicken sandwich.
Edge talked of yams, lunch counters, ways to cook an opossum and the subject of his volume’s cover photo, okra. Okra is, perhaps, the most Southern of all vegetables, at its best when fried. My mind quickly set on the most recent batch of fried okra I’d had, a different take on the traditional dish served up at Miller Union near the Georgia Tech campus in downtown Atlanta. Miller Union sliced its okra longways and cooked it in a batter that was light on grease allowing the okra to crunch a little on its own. It had good flavor and was satisfying even as one of four options on my vegetable plate.
In fact, it was the second fulfilling helping I’d had of fried okra this summer. The first was a wonderful side dish accompanying the family dinner of ribs we ordered from Lilburn’s Spiced Right Barbecue. It was sliced the more typical way into little nuggets, but the flavor of the batter and consistency of the okra was wonderful.
As each of the panelists took their turn, my note taking dropped off as I fiddled with my new iPhone. There were powerful and humorous anecdotes shared by each of the other panelists, but I stared into space, contemplating the humble okra plant.
The reward for Carla’s patience at the panel discussion was dinner at No. 246 in downtown Decatur. Although it’s not intelligible from the name, the restaurant is actually Italian. So naturally I was shocked to see fried okra listed as an appetizer.
“I don’t care what else we get, but I’ve got to have some okra.”
It did not disappoint.
If I save my pennies, I might be able to someday acquire the entire 24-volume set of “The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture,” and I will continue to follow Edge on Twitter, lapsing into drool at his posts on dining and cooking experiences across the South.
But most importantly, I think I experienced what is meant to be the point of his volume on Southern foodways: Southerners have unique cuisine that connects them and evokes strong memories of shared experience.
So as the season for fresh okra winds down, you better not waste any time in getting you a heapin’ plate of it. You’ll be glad you did.
Do you like okra? How do you prefer it, in gumbo, fried or prepared some other newfangled way? Share your love/hate relationship with okra by leaving a comment below.