November 7 was a beautiful day. People began streaming into the gates of Old Alabama Town shortly before 10 a.m. They passed two large tents where folks were stirring gumbo and chicken and goat stews and frying lacy cornbread, and went into the small white frame church building to learn about the foods being prepared outside and the people who make and eat them.
The program started with Community Scholar Bill Allen interviewing Carlos Shannon of Piney Chapel about making and serving goat and chicken stew. Carlos is quite the storyteller and jokester. He entertained us exceedingly while he told us of the lengthy preparation required in making goat stew (mainly because he starts with a live goat). He said jokes and stories are the main reasons for having stew gatherings. He also noted that the goat stew tradition is mainly in the upper northwest corner of Alabama and does not extend eastward past I-65.
Next Valerie Pope Burns of the Center for the Study of the Black Belt and Becky Robertson, President of the Epes Barbecue Club, told us about 7 barbecue clubs in the very small, rural communities of Sumter County. They showed slides, discussed the differences in the way the clubs operate, and shared stories of incidents. Becky spoke of the importance of the side dishes brought by women in the clubs and told of the time someone brought a store-bought cake in its box. One long-time member was shocked and swept it off the table. Burns and Robertson stressed the importance of tradition and community bonding in all of the clubs.
At noon the crowd of about 75 people gorged themselves on Carlos Shannon's goat and chicken stew, Judith Adams' gumbo full of fresh seafood from Mobile, and shredded barbecue from the nearby Farmer's Market Restaurant topped with their choice of sauces from three Sumter County clubs, Epes, Timilichee, and Emelle. They were delighted with Connie Floyd's fried lacy cornbread, cooked on the spot by Connie and two sisters. They also ate slaw from the Farmer's Market which was provided to round out the meal.
With the promise of being able to take home the left-overs (a tradition in itself), everyone gathered in the church building again where they voted on the Board of Directors of the Alabama Folklife Association and then heard Community Scholar Sylvia Stephens interiew Connie Floyd of Troy on making fried cornbread from three simple ingredients, one being fine cornmeal ground locally in the Wiregrass Region. In the discussion afterward we agreed that fried cornbread seems to be a specialty of southeastern Alabama. There it is served in most restauraunts where elsewhere most cornbread is baked.
The sessions ended with Community Scholar Susan Thomas presenting Judth Adams of Mobile, who learned to make gumbo from her grandmoter in Bay Minette. In her very personable way, she told of the importance and tediousness of making the roux and of the ingredients she felt must be included in an enjoyable gumbo.
At the close of the presentations, the audience went back to the food tents to help straighten up and pick up pints of gumbo and stew to take home as a delicious remembrance of the first Alabama Foodways Gathering.
This event was sponsored by the Alabama Folklife Association and made possible by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Alabama State Council on the Arts. It was co-chaired by Joyce Cauthen and Sylvia Stephens with support by staff of the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture and the AFA Board of Directors. It was accompanied by a booklet of essays written by the interviewer/presenters on the four regional food traditions. You may read the PDF version on-line.
Photos above courtesy of Sylvia Stephens and Bill Allen