Brown in the South

Brown in the South
Words by Heather Richie
Photos provided by Chani Pani

Southern Foodways Alliance kicked off its Brown In The South dinner series with Desi Diner at Chai Pani Decatur on Sunday night. Here’s what you need to know about the landmark dinner, and how to get tickets to the remaining series dinners before they sell out (it’s already too late for Vol. 2, which sold out before dessert was served at Vol. 1).

The Brown In The South series showcases Southern chefs of Indian descent, namely first and second generation Indian immigrants to the American South. The dishes at these dinners are iconically Southern with a nod to Indian culinary techniques and ingredients. Call it fusion if you want, but understanding the Southernness of your (amazing) meal is central to internalizing the series’ ethos. Look at it this way: the American South belongs to everyone who calls it home. It’s not about the race clickbait articles debating who owns Southern food (those ignore entire demographics and well documented histories for the sake of firing you up).

When SFA director John T. Edge opens the dinner referring to himself as a passive Southerner—one who was “given the place”—and the Southern-Indian chefs as “active Southerners” for having immigrated and getting to work making it home, his intentions aren’t to paternalistically welcome active Southerners the way Charleston binyahs give nod to her comeyahs. The Southern Foodways Alliance has a more subversive and attractive mission than that. “Brown In The South” rejects the mythology of white-and-blackness and unearths the cultural plurality of the region one dish at a time:

Seating for Brown In The South series open, and I plopped down between two Mississippi natives and Thai-born Eaksuree “Faye” Poonsiripukdeekul, who spent four years working her way to executive chef at W.H. Stiles Fish Camp. To my left I spent the evening recalling Delta staples like Kool-Aid pickles and tamales. To my right, most of Poonsiripukdeekul’s expert culinary discussions flew directly over my head, but we did enjoy a laugh over Trevor Noah’s bit on bunny chow, the South African Indian vehicle for curry that hasn’t made it yet to the American South (someone, please!), which reminded me Kwazulu Natal’s Indian population, the largest outside India, is the only other culture aside from American Southerners to concoct—without either group influencing the other—the word y’all. Y’all think about that, and what makes a Southerner, if you look beyond geography, immediately becomes subjective. Edge argues the term Southerner has too long meant “white” and “Confederate” in texts, but there’s a large body of working class Southerners who have, for generations, understood the region as a shared space.

What about that space? Sure, we can pigeon hole the American South to crude borders having something to do with Mason—Dixon, Texas, and an ocean. But to be a Southerner doesn’t require qualifiers like active and passive. You’re either engaged in the fluid cultures of the region you call home, or you’re passively consuming whatever is put on your plate, In that case you might owe what Edge calls a debt of pleasure, and living in the South for one generation or a dozen doesn’t make you a Southerner. It might be a time that would serve us well to look away from the historic borders of American South to better understand our sense of place in the world. Brown In The South showcases Southern Indian chefs, but its speaking to more than the one group, and to more than consumption of culturally themed dinner parties. Perhaps we don’t say often enough just how diverse the American South really is. Most anyone will tell you there’s three Mississippis, three Georgias, three South Carolinas. And within each of them, there’s a kaleidoscope more. These are just terms we use, not identities. Just ask Appalachia, probably the most generalized term to mask as singular out there.

In a way, Brown In The South reminds me of cultural days we’d have in elementary school, growing up in Atlanta. The teacher assigned, and students and their parents would cook, dishes from all over the world. Neither white nor black were options. As children, at Brown In The South last week, we were telling richer, more complex, and better stories.

To reserve your space at A Brown In The South dinner, follow Southern Foodways Alliance.