Sean Brock is hot stuff, winner of a James Beard Foundation award and star of Mind of A Chef, he's got restaurants in Charleston and Nashville and a best selling cookbook called Heritage. But when he was asked to make lunch for a pretty prestigious crowd at the annual Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium in Oxford, Miss., he said: "I did what every boy does when he gets scared. I called my mother." And, so Sean Brock's mama, Renee, cooked alongside him, making 20 incredibly delicious dishes for a "Groaning Table" lunch, one of the highlights of this event that draws academics, food writers, chefs and food enthusiasts from around the country each fall.
The first spoonful of those homey chicken and dumplings made my eyes sweat (that's what some people in the South call crying) because it tasted exactly like my grandmother's. The dish was simple and well-seasoned, the love shining through, no tweezer-placed garnishes on top. That nostalgic dish definitely speaks to a time when prosperity was measured by a chicken in every pot, and, yet, it seems relevant today when family food budgets can be challenged. Still, this inexpensive main course doesn't taste cheap, and that has everything to do with the time invested in making it. Sometime, you can't hurry good things.
That was a common thread that ran through the meal featuring foods from the Mountain South, specifically, the Appalachian Mountains where Brock grew up. When guests arrived, they found long tables beautifully set with fresh vegetable plates and jars of pickles. There were slow-braised beans that tasted buttery and another bean dish called Leather Britches, pictured below. Golden cornbread was served from cast iron skillets. The assortment of desserts included Hillbilly Fudge made with chocolate and Velvetta, which tasted a lot richer than you'd guess considering it contains that cheese-like ingredient.
I joined the organization and started going to these events in 2004, when I was working as a food writer for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., and the mix of thought-provoking presentations punctuated by amazing meals fills me up on so many levels. This year, speakers included author Jack Hitt giving a hilarious talk on what used to appear on menus in the South long before Southern food was trendy, a lecture called "Deep-Fried Baked Alaska," a moving reading by Kiese Laymon and short films about ground-breaking restaurateurs (the late) Bill Neal and JoAnn Clevenger, the ever-charming owner of Upperline in New Orleans and the recipient of this year's Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award. Beyond the spectacular spread from chef Sean and his mama, there was a catfish fry at Taylor Grocery, memorable oyster hand pies from chef Mashama Bailey and grits smothered deviled eggs. In other words, you really need to put this symposium on your calendar for 2016.
Back to the chicken and dumplings, my grandmother was from South Dakota, a long way from Virginia, and, yet, that timeless dish seems to know no geographic boundaries. She made it for the family on Sundays, and, sometimes when we were sick. When I was old enough for cooking lessons, Nana showed me how to fry chicken and put up peaches and pickles. I wish I had asked her the secret to the chicken and dumplings, which is why there was a lump in my throat while I was savoring the deeply satisfying dish.Eating that ultimate comfort food at the heartwarming, belly-filling lunch inspired me to do some digging and experiment with a few recipes, recreating it as tribute to a woman who was my hero and to chef Sean's mother, who beamed while sharing the spotlight with her famous son. Here's a segment on Mind of a Chef, featuring.