Charlotte’s Latino Food Scene Focus of SFA Symposium
WHEN THE SOUTHERN FOODWAYS ALLIANCE brings its summer symposium to Charlotte next weekend, attendees won’t be touring the usual white-tablecloth suspects. Instead, they’ll sample puerquitos from Las Delicias bakery, take a Central Avenue grocery store crawl, and engage in conversations about the role of the Latino community in Charlotte’s culinary scene. The symposium, which runs June 22-24, reflects the theme of SFA’s programming this year: El Sur Latino, or the Latino South.
“The Southern Foodways Alliance … embraces the immigrant possibilities of our region and believes that the demographic destiny of our region and our nation is rooted in those new arrivals and their contributions to a kind of future-tense Southern food culture,” SFA executive director John T. Edge says. “We thought that the best city in the South in which to showcase that future-tense Southern food culture is Charlotte.”
For Edge, studying food culture is an opportunity “to explore and perhaps understand people different from yourself,” but with that opportunity come challenges.
Joseph “Piko” Ewoodzie, the SFA’s 2017 Egerton Scholar in Residence, is a professor of sociology and African American Studies at Davidson College. He’ll open the symposium with a presentation Thursday evening called “Everything But the Burden.” He argues that food consumers have an obligation to engage with the experiences of those who make the food.
“Very often when we enjoy all the things that immigrants bring to this country—be it their fashion, their letters, or their food—we enjoy the taco but not talk about the taco maker,” he says. “To the extent that we enjoy any finely made food, we also have to care about the experiences of immigrant populations.”
The SFA is housed within the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, and since its founding in 1999, the alliance’s mission has evolved. The organization has faced criticism for its approach to race and the fraught histories inherent in Southern foodways. Last year, two scholars put out a call for papers to challenge Southern food studies like the SFA’s, arguing that “feel-good celebrations of ‘authenticity’ and ‘southern identity’” don’t give the full picture and that the approach tends to “flatter (largely white and upper-class) southern readers, students, and donors.”
Tickets for the weekend event cost $465, which raises the question of who does and does not get to participate in the symposium’s conversations. The alliance’s website notes that the event is “programmed on a break-even budget. We pay all our speakers, chefs, and program guests out of respect for their time and talents.”
“The SFA continues to struggle—and I think it gets better each year—to figure out, is it a food appreciation conference and association, or is it an association that’s trying to use food to reconcile all kinds of injustices?” Ewoodzie says. “I think in their stated mission it’s probably the latter, but in their practices, they’re probably still working hard to live up to that.”
But Ewoodzie and others agreed to participate in this summer’s symposium because they believe in what SFA can do: bring attention to underappreciated restauranteurs, forge lasting connections, and engage with issues around Southern food culture.
“I think (the SFA) is about opening your heart and your mind to what the everyday food culture of the South is and what the hidden food culture of the South is,” says Susan Dosier, a former Southern Living food writer and public relations professional who works with local restaurants. “It’s certainly made a huge difference for me as a food and culinary professional in opening my mind and helping me see a more accurate and inclusive picture of what Southern food is and what it can be.”
One issue that Ewoodzie believes should be at the forefront of participants’ minds is immigration. Charlotte’s Latino population has swelled to about 15 percent of the city’s overall population in just the past two decades. And there are nearly 1 million Latinos in North Carolina, with heavy concentrations in major farming counties in the eastern part of the state, such as Sampson and Duplin.
Whether they’re immigrant-owned or not, restaurants in Charlotte and around the country rely on “the labor, the genius, the creativity of somebody who is an immigrant,”
Ewoodzie says. “People who are coming to SFA are important constituents in being a part of that conversation because they are the direct beneficiaries of the work that undocumented people do.”
Oliver Merino, Latino New South coordinator at the Levine Museum of the New South, is not surprised that the SFA would choose to focus on the contributions of Latinos in Charlotte. He says it’s important for the symposium’s attendees to understand that those contributions aren’t just part of the city’s future—they’re happening now. Merino, who moved to North Carolina from Mexico, knows the ticket price is likely steep for many of the very people the symposium aims to shed light on, but he says the weekend will be an opportunity to share the experiences of Latinos in Charlotte and perhaps “move the needle for some people.”
“One of the best ways to get to know someone or a culture is through the food, so hopefully this will spark conversations not only about the food but about the people and the places that the food comes from,” he says.
Given the growth of the Latino population in the city, Charlotte makes sense as a setting for a symposium looking to explore themes of immigration and Latino contributions.
The choice of Charlotte for a food symposium is less immediately obvious.
"Charlotte has worked so hard to get a culinary reputation,” Dosier says. She doesn’t believe that the city has had its watershed culinary moment yet. But Edge suggests that perhaps the city is looking in the wrong places.
“Charlotte is a too-often overlooked food town that I think is too often measured by whether Charlotte has won a Beard award,” he says. “The direction of American food culture and Southern food culture is toward immigrant restaurants and toward more casual, honest restaurants, and Charlotte has those sorts of restaurants and boasts those sorts of chefs and entrepreneurs in a big way.”
“The greatness of a city need not be measured in whether it has an iconic BBQ joint,” Edge continues. “Perhaps it should be measured by way of whether it has an iconic tacos al pastor joint.”