The SFA Take: The Importance of Being Playful

She tried to popularize popcorn possum nuggets, but aside from some cousins on her mama’s side, consumer demand played dead. Her star resurfaced during the disco era, when she had a crossover hit with “You SOB (Sure Oughta Boogie).”
Phyllis Terwilliger by Brooke Hatfield. She tried to popularize popcorn possum nuggets, but aside from some cousins on her mama’s side, consumer demand played dead. Her star resurfaced during the disco era, when she had a crossover hit with “You SOB (Sure Oughta Boogie).”

In a few weeks, scholars, writers, chefs, and eaters will gather at this year’s summer foodways symposium to explore Nashville as a culinary citadel. Through lectures, meals, tastings, performances, and experiences, SFA will reframe ideas about civic identity. We’ll situate Nashville as a global city, a country-come-to-town immigrant city, a lamb kabob-n-three plus cornbread city, a radical city where activists honed civil rights movement tactics.

We’ll also have a lot of fun. In fact, SFA devotes just as much energy to that aspect of our events as we do every other part of the programming. Fun, we find, is essential and cathartic.

We are serious about our work, but not too serious about ourselves.

-SFA Vision & Values

currence dunk tank
Shrimp costume-clad John Currence awaits a dunking into a vat of grits.

If you’ve attended an SFA event, you’ve probably seen some ridiculous things. A shrimp costume-clad John Currence taunting attendees from the seat of a dunk tank filled with grits. A masked avenger (whose identity we can neither confirm nor deny) performing a dramatic reading of Pete Wells’s infamous review of Guy Fieri’s restaurant. A quirky art installation depicting absurd fictitious attempts to build fast food empires from potted meats and popcorn possum nuggets. All this was just at last year’s symposium.

Other years have featured a Lincoln-Douglas style debate on the merits of cake versus pie or a bacon tree, draped with slices of cured pork belly. At least one afterparty has ended with an Iron Chef-style cookoff using only ingredients from the local Chevron.

Mini shark attack shots give depth to Brett Martin's symposium talk on the New Orleans cocktail.
Mini shark attack shots give depth to Brett Martin’s symposium talk on the New Orleans cocktail.

Amid serious, often soul-searching, inquiry into the implications and associations behind Southern foodways, we dare not forget the pleasures of a well-cooked meal, a light-hearted anecdote, or a sip of good spirits in better company. We aim to set a table where all can join us to document, study, and explore Southern foodways, where new ways of looking at and being in the South can emerge. Generosity of spirit, the ability to enjoy one another’s company, the willingness to let one’s hair down—that’s grease in the pan where those emergent ideas simmer and start to come together.

To an outsider, SFA’s ethic of playfulness might seem to undercut the seriousness of our work. We believe it facilitates that seriousness. An academic approach to certain subject matter may be built on ideas alone, but the dedication and enthusiasm of our members goes beyond intellectual stimulation. Connection is forged through shared experience. The positive, the fun, the silly, the side-splitting—these shared experiences go a long way toward creating an environment of respect and reconciliation that we describe in our mission statement.

It’s these experiences that can allow a person to say, “You and I may disagree on the right way to make cornbread or even the right way to represent our region. But we can laugh together as we watch this James Beard Award-winning chef climb out of a cold mess of instant grits in a shrimp costume. I wonder if they’re the butter flavored kind?”