Headed South

The pit was dug, the fire department appeased, a row of old theater seats set up for the all-night pitmasters, the wood burned down to perfumed embers. All that remained on the night before the final feast of the Southern Foodways Alliance’s annual  symposium was to add the future centerpieces of the meal: Cow heads. Pit-cooked Barbacoa de Cabeza, if it sounds better to you.

The leap from Mexican barbacoa to the South’s beloved barbecue is but a small one, and that was the point of the Oxford, Ms. event. The symposium, “The Global South,” showed once again that the South is not an easily characterized mass of fried chicken and pecan pie. As a talk by Tom Hanchett, historian of the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, N.C., put it in his talk, we’re more of a salad bowl than a melting pot. Vietnamese fishermen in Louisiana, Chinese grocers in Arkansas, Southern food embraces it all while allowing each to keep their own identities.

But what y’all really want to know is: What did the beef taste like? (No brains, just lovely cheek meat.) It was the smoothest, most tender beef I’ve ever tasted. The shreds sat on top of corn tortillas with a drizzle of crema and an avocado-tomatillo sauce. It was so good, I almost didn’t mind missing the tequila tasting (the line was too long), but considering my past history with the beverage, maybe that was good. There were lighted candles on the tables.

During the weekend, I also traveled culinarily to Florida with lunch by Miami chef Michelle Bernstein, a one-woman salad bowl herself who blends Argentinian and Jewish ancestry. Her lunch menu ranged from fried chicken to Shrimp and Sweet Potato Ceviche, something I think of as being very Miami but with the curve ball of the Southern spud.