20 Southern Food Legends
Over two decades of work, my colleagues at the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) and I have learned many lessons about this region we call home. The 20 people profiled here, among hundreds of others, have been our teachers. We have documented their lives in short films, recorded and archived their oral history interviews, drawn inspiration from their writing, and followed their leads on social and environmental justice. We have listened to their voices and heard their calls.
SFA is a storytelling organization based at the University of Mississippi. Established in 1999 at a meeting of 50 founders on the Southern Living campus in Birmingham, we document, study, and explore the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. From the beginning, SFA has focused on farmers, cooks, waiters, and other working folk who’d previously received too little recognition for their knowledge and labor and vision. We have prioritized sharing the contributions of people of color, who were long denied their legacy.
We tell new stories from an old place. We frame the South as a dynamic region. We regard farmers and cooks as agitators for progress and cultivators of change who spur the region to own up to its promise. Collectively, these stories of lives in service to the region show and tell how everyday folk have bridged divides of race and class and gender, rejiggered definitions of Southern culture, and charted a path forward for us all.
A peach grower and author of novels and cookbooks that illustrate and celebrate the rural South, Dori Sanders carries forward a tradition of farmers who also serve the region as writers. Her farm, in the family since 1915, has been a source of inspiration and income. In 1990, Sanders published Clover, the story of a young black South Carolina girl coming to terms with her white stepmother. Each of her books has been a gift to the region, a passkey to making connections across differences. Selling peaches at the family stand and writing books about life in rural South Carolina, she has helped knit the region together.
His grandmother owned bars and restaurants, where he played as a child. At age 17, Eddie Hernandez emigrated from his native Monterrey, Mexico, to Texas, where he drummed in a cover band that played Spanish-language versions of rock anthems. In Atlanta, Hernandez worked his way into the kitchen. Together with his partner, Mike Klank, he built Taqueria del Sol into a multicultural restaurant group that suits the city’s modern needs. Serving refried black-eyed peas and turnip greens spiked with chile de árbol, he has codified the 21st-century Southern kitchen.
Elihue Washington Jr.
Little Rock, AR
Molassis and Joe Watson first sold sandwiches out of their home around 1905. Their business eventually became a restaurant called Lassis Inn. During the 1957 desegregation of Central High School, Daisy Bates and other civil rights leaders held meetings there. Current owner Elihue Washington Jr. knows that history, and he recognizes that a good restaurant does more than feed; it sustains. Here, warm conversation and buffalo ribs are the preferred sustenance. Cut from buffalo fish that’s battered and fried and served alongside 40-ounce beers, they are artifacts of commerce and community.
A champion of Virginia grape growing and winemaking, Gabriele Rausse grew up in northern Italy. In 1976, he came to Barboursville, near Charlottesville, where a short consultation became a career. Mastering complex graft work, he nurtured a nascent Virginia wine industry, coaxing old-world grapes to thrive in a difficult climate. Rausse has mentored growers at dozens of vineyards, including Blenheim and Afton Mountain. In 1997, he founded his label, Gabriele Rausse Winery. He believes the future for Virginia vineyards is bright, and he makes wines that validate his optimism.
Goren “Red Dog” Avery
Born to Harriett and Obie Avery, Goren grew up in the Smithfield community of Birmingham. After high school, he worked his way up to waiter and then captain at a downtown restaurant, flaming tableside dishes like bananas Foster. When Highlands Bar & Grill opened in 1982, chef Frank Stitt hired Avery to work the floor. Four nights a week, he charms and cajoles regulars, delivering lectures on the Florida source of the flounder in sherry sauce and the French technique employed for the scallops with sauce meunière. Forty-plus years after first tying on a waiter’s apron, he is a master at the height of his powers.
The Penny per Pound initiative, in which the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) used boycotts and marches to win one more penny for each pound of crop picked by those working in Florida tomato fields, has proven to be the most effective civil rights campaign of the past 20 years, lifting many people out of poverty and creating a more just food system for all. The CIW leverages the Wendell Berry dictum that “eating is an agricultural act.” Greg Asbed (who cofounded the organization with his wife, Laura Germino, and their colleague Lucas Benitez) advocates for better pay and working conditions for migrant laborers. An attorney by training and an activist by profession, Asbed lives by the creed he preaches, often joining CIW members to harvest watermelons in Georgia.
Raised by her grandmother in Tampa, Florida, Ira Wallace traveled the world after college. She lived on an Israeli kibbutz and on farms in Canada, Scandinavia, and North Carolina. In 1984, she settled in Virginia, where she helped found Twin Oaks Community cooperative farm, an early commercial maker of tofu. Today, Wallace helps direct Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (a mighty force in the fight for environmental diversity) and teaches workshops about heirloom and open-pollinated seeds, framing their importance with narratives about family and resilience.
Like her father, Will Harris III, Jenni Harris grew up in the southwestern Georgia town of Bluffton. Jenni sold cattle at 4-H conferences, and when she was 9 years old, her father reinvented the family farm, White Oak Pastures, to adopt more sustainable and responsible methods. The Harrises now raise 10 species of animals, including pigs and rabbits. Temple Grandin, the leading authority on humane animal treatment and slaughter, designed their abattoirs. Jenni now lives on the farm with her wife, Amber, and son, Jack, the sixth generation of Harrises to call this land home.
Jessica B. Harris
New Orleans, LA (and New York City)
For four decades, Jessica B. Harris has spoken and written eloquently, lovingly, and critically of this region’s foodways, reminding all that the South is as West African as it is Western European. A fierce intellect, she has published 12 books on the cooking of the African diaspora, including Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons and The Welcome Table. Back when too few knew the difference between a yam and a sweet potato, Harris set the table for a generation of writers who followed.
New Orleans, LA
A succession of talented chefs has led the kitchen since the Uptown restaurant Upperline opened in 1983, serving the roasted duck of your dreams. But chefs have not defined this place. Each night JoAnn Clevenger greets her audience in a red-and-black dress, fixed with her prized Girl Scout pin. A visionary restaurateur who makes a case for the role of hospitality in community building and reminds diners that “the word restaurant comes from the French word for restore,” she may be the best front-of-the-house person in the region and is definitely the sort of charmer whose presence makes a night in New Orleans truly transformative.
Jo Ellen O’hara
Before she became a newspaperwoman, Jo Ellen O’Hara got a degree in home economics, but writing was her love. After she earned a master’s in journalism, O’Hara won the job as food editor of The Birmingham News in 1965. Her male editors, who predicted that she would marry and leave her role, insisted she adopt the pseudonym “Sue Scattergood” so the paper could easily replace her. She finally convinced them to let her write under her own name after 15 years in the position. Forty-three years after she became the go-to food expert, O’Hara retired from the paper in 2008, having documented the city’s rise from being called “Bombingham” to becoming a citadel of American food culture.
Judy Schad has led the farmstead-cheese revolution since the late 1970s, starting with the milk from her children’s 4-H show goats. Rather than look to France for inspiration, she read Cheesemaking Made Easy and forged friendships with female craftspeople. With her cheese business, Capriole, Schad proved a great marketer, too, selling to Southern chefs who want regional cheeses (like her O’Banon, a tart chèvre wrapped in bourbon-soaked chestnut leaves). Her Southern Indiana location is often called Kentuckiana.
Laura Patricia Ramírez
Laura Patricia Ramírez was born in the state of Jalisco in Mexico. In 1985, she and her husband arrived in Paris, Kentucky, so he could work in the horse-racing business. At that point, few Latinos lived in Lexington, but now they dominate the horse industry. Ramírez opened Tortillería y Taquería Ramírez in 1997, in a section of Lexington nicknamed “Mexington.” Her carnitas tacos reflect Mexico. She also channels Kentucky, using masa from nearby Weisenberger Mills for her aromatic tortillas.
Marcie Cohen Ferris
Chapel Hill, NC
Marcie Cohen Ferris’ work on Jewish foodways, marked by her book Matzo Ball Gumbo, paved the way for more inclusive understandings of Southern culinary culture. Her next book, The Edible South, charted the food history of our region and mapped a path for future scholars. A native of Blytheville, Arkansas, Ferris has taught a generation of students at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill how to read and think about the South. And she has done this important work while maintaining an infectious sense of humor.
Lake Village, AR
Mexican workers, recruited to the Mississippi Delta in the early years of the 20th century to pick bumper cotton harvests, likely brought tamale-making here. Hot-tamale stands now dot the Mississippi Delta and the strip of land that hugs the Arkansas side of the river too. The tamales that Rhoda Adams rolls at Rhoda’s Famous Hot Tamales were born of that exchange. Her half-and-half pies, on the other hand, are her own inscrutable invention. Creamy sweet potato on one side and gooey pecan nougat on the other, tucked in an honest crust, they come in 3-inch tins. Eaten out of hand, they are idealized and delicious tokens of her ingenuity.
In 1912, Jack Patillo founded Patillo’s BBQ, which is now the oldest black-owned barbecue joint in the state. In 1981, Robert Patillo, Jack’s great-grandson, officially stepped into the smokehouse and assumed responsibility for more than a business. He shouldered the burden of a fading style of barbecue. In addition to beef clod, he smokes grease balls, sau-
sages that were once more popular in the Gulf South. Stuffed in beef casings and flavored with garlic, red and black pepper, and chili powder, the sausages are squeezed from the links by locals, who admire the juices that squirt out and smear the meat on white bread. To eat them is bliss.
A self-styled fermentation revivalist, Sandor Katz connects modern farm activists and back-to-the-land hippies through a commitment to preservation and craft. A onetime policy wonk, Katz left New York City in 1993 for rural Cannon County, Tennessee, where he mentors artisans and cooks. Katz, who lives with AIDS and considers fermented foods to be part of his healing, has written four books (including The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved and The Art of Fermentation) that are manifestos for a new generation of activists. In the process, he’s rendered fermentation a radical act.
Chapel Hill, NC
Sheri Castle was born in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. She wrote her first recipe—Hawaiian Tropic Sunset Delight, a smoothie—at the tender age of 4. At 13, she broadened her culinary horizons by making each dish in the Joy of Cooking. Since then, she’s leveraged what she learned from her family of cooks to develop recipes for magazines, newspapers, and restaurants; teach at culinary schools across the nation; collaborate on books with chefs and personalities; and publish her own title, The New Southern Garden Cookbook. In the process, she has revealed herself to be our best advocate for the rich history of Southern home cooking.
The meat ’n’ three is a modern adaptation of the farmworker’s midday meal, served from a steam table to city Southerners who pine for a taste of the country cooking their parents and grandparents left behind. Founded more than 70 years ago, Silver Sands Cafe feeds the Hope Gardens neighborhood. Sophia Vaughn, the third-generation owner, rises each day as early as 3 a.m. to cook down collards, stir meatloaf, and mix salmon croquettes. She works to feed her family and her community. The fierce love she broadcasts to all who gather comes for free.
After Hurricane Katrina wrecked the coast, Le Bakery became a fulcrum for the relief and rebuilding effort, a neutral ground where the various racial, ethnic, and economic communities of Biloxi gathered for owner Sue Nguyen’s banh mi sandwiches overstuffed with roast pork. Nguyen moved here from Vietnam as a girl. In the kitchens of her neighbors and relatives, she learned to make cha gió and gumbo. Le Bakery reflects her life experience in Mississippi and her will to remember what her family left behind in Vietnam.