A tribute to an organization that has given new meaning to Southern food.
First Southern Foodways Alliance Gathering
Credit: Southern Foodways Alliance

Twenty years ago, on July 22, 1999, a diverse group of Southern food writers, chefs, and historians gathered in the heat of summer at the Southern Living offices in Birmingham to create an organization that would use teaching and storytelling to tackle issues of race, poverty, and division in the South. It was a bold idea and not the first of its kind, but with strong support from the University of Mississippi, the group was fueled by a sense of optimism and excitement. Southern food was on the rise, and there seemed to be an opportunity to bring together people of all races and creeds around a common table. Led by a charismatic writer from Nashville named John Egerton, they called themselves the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA).

That night, they met for dinner at Highlands Bar & Grill, where chef Frank Stitt served a menu meant to celebrate Southern food with a local provenance: fried green tomatoes with crab from Bayou La Batre, Alabama; rabbit pilau with Vidalia onions and nasturtium blossoms; and grilled Destin grouper with cherry tomatoes, okra, and butter beans. The conversation was animated. Stitt talked about the need to accentuate the importance of farmers, and Egerton ended the dinner by laying out a vision for a better South, one in which food could help heal some very old wounds. "John Egerton's desire was to bring eaters and thinkers together," says Pardis Stitt, who manages restaurants with her husband, Frank. "His vision was not to turn away from our past but to talk across the table while breaking cornbread and dipping it in potlikker."

A young food scholar and graduate of the University of Mississippi's Center for the Study of Southern Culture, John T. Edge, was appointed the director of the organization, and he has spent 20 years bringing Egerton's vision to life—and infusing it with his own. The SFA now has around 2,500 members; a quarterly publication and a podcast, both called Gravy; a calendar full of events; a catalog of oral histories; and a slew of short films exploring Southern food culture and the people who define it. He wrote a tribute to 20 of them, many of whom have inspiring stories that would not have been told without the work of the SFA.

WATCH: Meet one of the founders of Southern Foodways Alliance—Jessica B. Harris

To all of our friends in that fine organization, and to the visionary crew who founded it, happy anniversary. Keep doing what you're doing.

Pictured Above:
Bottom row from left: Jeanne Voltz, Sarah Labensky, Louis Osteen, Karen Cathey, Marlene Osteen, Frank Stitt, Jim Auchmutey, Charles Reagan Wilson, Cynthia Hizer, Marion Sullivan, Norma Jean Darden, Bob Sykes, Damon Lee Fowler
Middle row from left: Ned Shank, Crescent Dragonwagon, Toni Tipton-Martin, Nathalie Dupree
Top row from left: John Egerton, Martha Johnston, John T. Edge, Timothy W. Patridge, Anna Abadie, Donna Florio, Terry Ford, Kaye Adams