Since its founding in 1999, the SFA has recognized a dozen of its leading lights with an award for their body of work. These are individuals who personify the high standards of culinary expertise and cultural integrity to which we all aspire.
This year, for the first time, the formal award bears the name of the late Craig Claiborne, who rose from Sunflower, Mississippi, to become the first male editor of the New York Times food pages, a post he occupied with distinction from 1957 to 1986.
As a small-town Southern cook and writer/editor who never was outclassed by the competition, Craig Claiborne is a perfect role model for this year’s honoree. She hails from Corbin, Kentucky, a mountain town where Harland Sanders developed his recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken, destined to anchor a worldwide fast food empire.
It may be no coincidence that our honoree used the words “Honest Fried Chicken” in the title of her first book, to distinguish her exquisitely encrusted bird from the greasy wings, brawny drumsticks and buxom pullybones being peddled from Baghdad to Beijing by a long retinue of Colonel Sanders wannabees. Let it be said for the record that our honoree this evening is nobody’s wannabee; she is her own person, her own model of pride, confidence, determination and consummate skill.
As a music critic for the Louisville Courier-Journal in the 1970s and ‘80s, she earned the respect of a generation of performers, including John Hartford, Emmylou Harris, Sam Bush, the Judds, and Bill Monroe, the fabled father of bluegrass. By the ‘90s, the food that supported so many musicians in and around the mountain South had begun to lure our honoree from her critic’s perch to the kitchen, and in 1991 she published Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes, and Honest Fried Chicken, a classic fusion of the food and music cultures of that region.
A second book, on food-centered holiday celebrations in the South, came out in 1995, and then our honoree turned—far in advance of the wave now sweeping the nation—to chronicle the return of small-plot farming, community-supported agriculture, heirloom seeds, fresh local produce, and the preservation of culinary traditions in her native Appalachia. She was the single most persistent one among us to advocate an SFA showcase of outstanding food writing, and is thus the true mother of our Cornbread Nation series.
In league with Elizabeth Sims, one of SFA’s esteemed former presidents, our Claiborne Award recipient deserves a generous share of the credit for the culinary renaissance that is transforming Asheville, North Carolina, into a major destination city of the South. They are a dynamic duo—the Thelma and Louise of the SFA—whether in Asheville or Nashville, Oxford or Louisville, the mountain South or the mountains of New Mexico, where tonight’s honoree now lives and regularly inspires random segments of the local population.
Please join me in celebrating the life work of the twelfth SFA Lifetime Achievement Award winner and the first recipient of the Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award of the Southern Foodways Alliance—the divine and audacious Ms. Ronni Lundy.
– John Egerton