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Spoken Dish Asks Southerners: What Is Your Food Identity?

Cornbread in a cast-iron skillet. A taste of home?
Todd Patterson
Cornbread in a cast-iron skillet. A taste of home?

Does cast-iron skillet cornbread, hot and crispy from the oven, transport you back to your grandma's kitchen? Do you cook with certain ingredients as a link to your roots in the South? If so, "A Spoken Dish" wants to hear your story.

The Southern Foodways Alliance is teaming up with Whole Foods Market and Georgia Organics in this video storytelling project as a way to celebrate and document food memories and rituals of the American South.

The goal is "to document the palate of a changing South," says A Spoken Dish producer Kate Medley. "We wanted to look at both how people cook and how they approach what lands on their supper table," Medley tells The Salt.

The answer to the question "What is your food identity?" Medley says, can reveal a lot about a person's history and values.

She describes the stories collected so far on the Spoken Dish website as "a patchwork quilt" of tales from all walks of life.

For instance, cattleman Will Harris shares his mama's egg bread recipe, a quick batter of egg, buttermilk, cornmeal and bacon grease (The recipe is below). The fourth-generation owner of White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Ga., Harris says egg bread was served at most meals — "certainly if you had company," he says. Sometimes, egg bread and milk was the only food on the table.

"Greasy, flat, thick, moist. Just good stuff," Harris recalls. "If you weren't killing hogs or cows or chickens because there weren't any ready, and the vegetables weren't ready, you made egg bread."

Geno Lee of Jackson, Miss., tells how his grandfather used to host civil rights leaders at the Big Apple Inn in the 1950s and '60s. NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers' office was just above the café on Farrish Street, once the bustling center for African-American life in Mississippi's then-segregated capital city. Today, the Big Apple still serves pig-ear sandwiches, an old-fashioned delicacy found in pockets of the South.

Jennifer McCormick of Atlanta recalls going fishing with her grandfather. They'd go to Catfish Junction Lake armed with a giant tub of chicken livers for bait. After a day of fishing, they'd return home for a big catfish fry.

"But the grossest thing about the whole day to me was that my grandfather loved fried chicken livers," McCormick says. "So whatever bait we had leftover — that we'd been sticking our nasty hands in all day long — he would have my grandmother clean and fry up for him for dinner." She found that tradition "disgusting."

The tales are a model for the future, says John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi. "It's difficult to balance the Web's want for short content with the SFA's want to deliver stories of substance about Southern food culture," Edge says.

With A Spoken Dish, Edge says, Kate Medley has accomplished "the perfect balance."

You can submit your own Southern food story through Facebook, Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #aspokendish. But even if you're not Southern, we're curious: What's your food identity? Share your stories in the comments below.

An Egg Bread Recipe From Will Harris

Beat one egg just a little with a spoon.


1 ¼ cup buttermilk

1 cup cornmeal

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 tablespoon baking powder

3/4 tablespoon salt

1 tablespoon sugar

2 big tablespoons bacon grease

Pour into a black iron skillet.

Bake 15-20 minutes at 350 degrees.

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NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
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