SFA Founders Oral History Project

We all know that this is the finest regional food in America, yesterday and today and forever. Here is our chance to keep it vibrant and to share it with one another and the rest of the world. – John Egerton, from his 1999 SFA recruitment letter

In the fall of 2004, the SFA launched its Founders Oral History Project. This important undertaking will forever preserve the history of the SFA through interviews with the organization’s fifty founding members. By recruiting SFA members and friends in locations across the country to conduct the interviews, SFA supporters have had the opportunity to be more actively involved in the SFA’s mission–and its history.

Below is an excerpt from John Egerton’s original letter to folks far and wide, inviting them to gather around the table of Southern Foodways. A handful of years later, we feel that these words still serve as the cornerstone of this organization, along with the fifty fine folks who heeded the call. We thank you.


June 16, 1999

Dear Friend,

As you know, a new effort is emerging to establish an organization that would bring together people from all over the region and beyond who grow, process, prepare, write about, study, or organize around the distinctive foods of the South. The principal base for this comprehensive and inclusive group will be in the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. They are offering us an opportunity to use their tax-exempt, non-profit status and their support staff like a greenhouse to grow this new organization, which will have its own officers and board, a self-generated budget, and an independent mission: to preserve and enhance the great food heritage of the South.

To get the pot boiling, I’ve been asked to send this letter of invitation to 50 people whose interest in such an organization is widely known. We request the honor of your participation in a “founders’ meeting” at Southern Living magazine on Thursday, July 22. We will meet all day and then adjourn to Highlands Bar & Grill, where Chef Frank Stitt and his wife Pardis will be our hosts for drinks and dinner. From 9 until noon the next morning, we’ll gather again at Southern Living to complete our work.

You will appreciate, I’m sure, the spirit of inclusiveness that is driving this effort. The time has come for all of us–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–to sit down and break bread together around one great Southern table. We all know that this is the finest regional food in America, yesterday and today and forever. Here is our chance to keep it vibrant and to share it with one another and the rest of the world. We sincerely hope you’ll agree to come to Birmingham and help us.

Most cordially yours,

John Egerton
for the “add-hock” organizers

Ann Abadie | Kaye Adams | Jim Auchmutey | Marilou Awiakta | Ben Barker | Ella Brennan | Ann Brewer Karen Cathey | Leah Chase | Al Clayton Mary Ann Clayton | Shirley Corriher | Norma Jean Darde     Crescent Dragonwagon | Nathalie Dupree | John T. Edge | John Egerton | Lolis Eric Elie | John Folse       Terry Ford | Psyche Williams-Forson | Damon Lee Fowler | Vertamae Grosvenor | Jessica B. Harris    Cynthia Hizer | Portia James | Martha Johnston | Sally Belk King | Sarah Labensky | Edna Lewis | Rudy Lombard | Ronni Lundy | Louis Osteen | Marlene Osteen | Timothy W. Patridge | Paul Prudhomme | Joe Randall | Marie Rudisill | Dori Sanders | Richard Schweid | Ned Shank  | Kathy Starr | Frank Stitt   Pardis Stitt  Marion Sullivan | Van Sykes | John Martin Taylor | Toni Tipton-Martin | Jeanne Voltz | Charles Reagan Wilson

This project was funded by Jim 'N Nick's Community Bar-B-Q.


Ann Abadie - SFA Founder -

Ann Abadie

Born in Greenville, South Carolina, Ann Abadie received her bachelor’s degree in English and History from Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Abadie earned her doctorate in English from the University of Mississippi, where she later served on the committee that planned the Center for the Study of Southern Culture.

Karen and Ben Barker - Magnolia Grill - SFA Founders

Ben Barker

Among the dishes to emerge from his kitchen (and the pages of that book) – cucumber soup with buttermilk, dill, and vermouth shrimp; pan-fried pork chops on creamy shrimp hominy; rabbit confit with marinated baby artichokes – many evince grounding in Southern traditions and reliance upon Southern ingredients, but eschew provincial simplicity in favor of nuance and forthrightness.

Charles Reagan Wilson - SFA Founder

Charles Reagan Wilson

Charles Reagan Wilson was born in Nashville and received his doctorate from the University of Texas. After teaching in Texas and Germany, Wilson moved to Oxford, Mississippi, where he helped grow the Center for the Study of Southern Culture. He served as the Center’s director from 1998 until 2007. Under his leadership, the SFA found a home at the University of Mississippi.

Damon Lee Fowler SFA Founder

Damon Lee Fowler

Born in Georgia and raised in South Carolina, Fowler earned a degree in architecture from Clemson University and worked as an architect before he realized his true calling: writing about food. Since the publication of his first book Classical Southern Cooking, he has emerged as an authority on Southern cooking and its history.

Dori Sanders - SFA Founder

Dori Sanders

Dori Sanders is a farmer, novelist, cookbook author, and a founding member of the Southern Foodways Alliance. She was raised on her family’s farm in Filbert, South Carolina, and returned there in middle age after living in Maryland for many years. She published her first novel, Clover, in 1990. Her cookbook, Dori Sanders’ Country Cooking: Recipes and Stories from the Family Farm Stand, followed in 1995. Sanders and her family still operate a roadside farm stand during the growing season, specializing in peaches.

Edna Lewis SFA Founder Photo

Edna Lewis

Edna Lewis was born in 1916 in the African American community of Freetown, Virginia, near Charlottesville. Raised in a family that grew and prepared all of its own food, Lewis devoted much her life to cooking the simple, Southern cuisine that she loved. Her work took her from New York to Atlanta and many points in between. As the cook at Cafe Nicholson in New York, she served many fellow expat Southerners, including William Faulkner and Truman Capote. Later in life she authored several cookbooks, the most famous of which was The Taste of Country Cooking, first published in 1989. She spent her last years in Atlanta with the chef Scott Peacock, and they collaborated on Lewis’s last book, The Gift of Southern Cooking, published in 2003. Edna Lewis passed away in 2006.

Ella Brennan - SFA Founder - Commander's Palace

Ella Brennan

In 1969 the Brennan family took over Commander’s Palace. That restaurant became Ella Brennan’s priority. Thanks to her, Commander’s Palace is now one of the city’s most beloved restaurants, synonymous with impeccable service and what Brennan calls “Haute Creole” cuisine. In 2002, SFA awarded her the Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award. She lives in New Orleans.

Frank Stitt SFA Founder Photo

Frank and Pardis Stitt

In 1982, he returned to his native Alabama. A quartet of restaurants followed. Recently, he wrote Frank Stitt’s Southern Table: Recipes and Gracious Traditions from Highlands Bar and Grill, an homage to Southern cookery, filtered though his various peregrinations. Therein you will find recipes for roast venison with cabbage, spoonbread, and bourbon; soft-shell crab with brown butter and bacon vinaigrette; and skirt steak with watermelon and red onion relish.

Jessica B. Harris - SFA Founder

Jessica B. Harris

Jessica B. Harris is the author of eight books documenting the foods and foodways of the African Diaspora. In addition to her cookbook, Beyond Gumbo: Creole Fusion Food from the Atlantic Rim, her previous works include The Africa Cookbook, The Welcome Table, Sky Juice and Flying Fish, A Kwanzaa Keepsake, Tasting Brazil, and Iron Pots & Wooden Spoons.

Jim Auchmutey - SFA Founder

Jim Auchmutey

Jim Auchmutey grew up in the Atlanta suburb of Decatur. A fifth generation Georgian, Auchmutey is the steward of his family Brunswick stew recipe, which dates to the 1880s. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in Journalism from Georgia State University, Auchmutey began working at the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

He remained at the AJC for twenty-nine years, working as a feature and projects writer until retirement in 2009. His books include True South and The Ultimate Barbecue Sauce Cookbook. Auchmutey lives and writes in Atlanta.

Joe Randall SFA Founder Photo

Joe Randall

A native of Pennsylvania, Joe Randall realized while stationed in Albany, Georgia, in 1963, that there was something special about Southern food. After leaving the Air Force, Randall spent much of the 1960s working in restaurants. Since then, Randall has served as executive chef at the Cloister Restaurant in Buffalo, New York, and the Fishmarket in Baltimore.

John Egerton - SFA Founder and Board Member

John Egerton

John Egerton is the author of Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History. He has lived—and eaten—all over the South, and currently resides in Nashville, Tennessee. His articles on food and a variety of other subjects have appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times Magazine, and many other publications.

John T. Edge - SFA Founder and Director

John T. Edge

At the University of Mississippi, John T. discovered a common thread between food, social justice, politics, and fun. His dissertation was titled The Potlikker Papers. And it was through university connections that John T. met the well-established journalist John Egerton, who quickly became John T.’s mentor, and with whom he formed the Southern Foodways Alliance in 1999. As he was from the beginning, as the organization’s only employee, John T. remains the SFA’s director. At the time of this writing, his staff numbers six.

Karen Barker

Her repertoire, honed over two decades in the kitchen, includes pink grapefruit soufflé tarts, key lime coconut pie, blackberry slump with sweet potato dumplings, and bourbon peach cobbler with cornmeal cream biscuits. She works in the American vernacular, resurrecting desserts that have fallen out of favor, gently reinventing sweets that have, through the years, become clichéd. Along with celebrating these dishes in her restaurant, she offers them in her book, Sweet Stuff: Karen Barker’s American Desserts.

Karen Cathey - SFA Founder

Karen Cathey

Cathey, who passed away in 2009, was the president of Bon Vivant, a food marketing consulting firm in Arlington, Virginia, and a past chair of the American Institute of Wine and Food. At the time of her death, she was working on a new organization, Feeding Our Future, focused on
linking children, food, and health.

Kathy Starr SFA Founder Photo

Kathy Starr

Her cookbook, The Soul of Southern Cooking, is a collection of classic Southern dishes that span generations of her family, and were passed down through her grandmother, Frances Fleming Hunter, who ran the Fair Deal Café in Hollandale, Mississippi. Starr who now lives in Snellville, Georgia, will soon finish work on her doctorate.

Leah Chase

Leah Chase transformed Dooky Chase into a landmark of New Orleans cookery, dishing peerless gumbo and other Creole delicacies. She served as the first president of the Southern Foodways Alliance Board of Directors. In 2000, she received the organization’s Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award.

Lolis Eric Elie - SFA Founder

Lolis Eric Elie

Lolis Eric Elie was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. He holds an MA from the Columbia School of Journalism and an MFA from the University of Virginia. Elie was a featured columnist for New Orleans’ Times-Picayune from 1995 to 2009, and his writing has also appeared in the Oxford American, The New York Times, Bon Appetit, and Gourmet.

Louis Osteen SFA Founder Photo

Louis and Marlene Osteen

A native of Anderson, in the upstate of South Carolina, Louis Osteen is one of the leading champions of Lowcountry cuisine. He and his wife Marlene first claimed Pawley’s Island as home in 1980. They have lived either in Charleston or on Pawley’s ever since.

Marie Rudisill SFA Founder Photo

Marie Rudisill

Born in Alabama, Marie Rudisill is the author of eight books, including Sook’s Cookbook and Fruitcake: Memories of Truman Capote & Sook. She was aunt to novelist Truman Capote and helped to raise him. He lived with her, both in Monroeville, Alabama, and New York City. Rudisill currently resides in Florida.

Marilou Awiakta SFA Founder Photo

Marilou Awiakta

Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1936, Marilou Awiakta is a seventh-generation Appalachian native and self-described Cherokee-Appalachian poet, storyteller, and essayist. After graduating from the University of Tennessee with degrees in French and English in 1958, Awiakta and her husband lived in France for three years where she sharpened her connection and sensitivity to language. Her books include Abiding Appalachia: Where Mountain and Atom Meet (1978), Rising Fawn and the Fire Mystery (1983), and Selu: Seeking the Corn-Mother’s Wisdom (1994). Her work has been chronicled in magazines, literary journals, and various anthologies of literature around the world. Awiakta currently lives in Memphis, Tennessee, with her husband, Paul Thompson.

Martha Johnston SFA Founder Photo

Martha Johnston

Johnston became the director of Southern Living’s cooking school in 1978. In the following years, her role expanded, and she led the magazine’s food marketing operations. Interested in documenting food practices and using food as a lens to observe history and culture, she served on the SFA’s first Board of Directors.

Nathalie Dupree SFA Founder Photo

Nathalie Dupree

When she returned to the U.S., Dupree opened her own restaurant, Nathalie’s, in Social Circle, Georgia. In 1975, she founded a cooking school in Rich’s Department Store in Atlanta. While at Rich’s she began writing and editing cookbooks, including New Southern Cooking. She is the author of eleven books about entertaining and cooking and has hosted over 300 television shows. She lives in Charleston, South Carolina.

Norma Jean Darden SFA Founder Photo

Norma Jean Darden

In addition to her talents in the kitchen, Darden is an accomplished actress. She has produced a one-woman play, Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine, inspired by her book of the same name. In 1998, Darden performed her play at the inaugural Southern Foodways Symposium in Oxford, Mississippi.

Paul Prudhomme SFA Founder Photo

Paul Prudhomme

Born in Opelousas, Louisiana, Paul Prudhomme was the youngest of 13 children. At 17, inspired by the cookery of his mother, he opened his first restaurant. In 1975, after stints outside the state, Prudhomme became the first American-born chef to lead the kitchens at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans.

Psyche Williams-Forson SFA Founder Photo

Psyche Williams-Forson

Psyche Williams-Forson is the author of Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power. She teaches in the women’s Studies and African American Studies departments at the University of Maryland. Born in Virginia, Williams-Forson uses food as a way to explore political, cultural, and social issues.

Ronni Lundy - SFA Founder

Ronni Lundy

Born in Corbin, Kentucky, Ronni Lundy has long chronicled the people of the hillbilly diaspora as a journalist and cookbook author. Her books include Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes, and Honest Fried Chicken: The Heart and Soul of Southern Country Kitchens and Butter Beans to Blackberries: Recipes from a Southern Garden. She is the former restaurant reviewer and music critic for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, former editor of Louisville Magazine, and has contributed to many national magazines. Shuck Beans, Stack Cakes and Honest Fried Chicken was recognized by Gourmet magazine as one of six essential books on Southern cooking.

Shirley Corriher SFA Founder Photo

Shirley Corriher

Her expertise earned the attention of Nathalie Dupree. By the late 1970s, Corriher was teaching a class on science and cooking for Dupree. She has since taught and lectured throughout the world, and has also written a syndicated column in The Los Angeles Times as well as technical articles in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. She lives in Atlanta.

Terry Ford SFA Founder Photo

Terry Ford

Prior to signing on as a founder of Southern Foodways Alliance, Ford helped found the American Southern Food Institute, an SFA predecessor, and served as a charter member of both the James Beard Foundation and the American Institute of Wine and Food. The proud owner and curator of a 20,000-volume collection of food books, he lives in Curve, Tennessee.

Toni Tipton-Martin SFA Founder Photo

Toni Tipton-Martin

Born and, for the most part, raised in Los Angeles, Toni Tipton-Martin traces her family to Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. She works as a journalist and community activist and was inspired, after three decades spent teaching cooking and nutrition, to found the SANDE Youth Project, a nonprofit that employs organic gardening techniques, cooking skills, and nutrition education to teach at-risk families and youth about healthy eating and cultural heritage.