As soon as Barbara Hyman saw the table with pimento cheese and champagne, she knew she was in the right place.

“I just fell in love with the group,” says Hyman, a Lakewood resident and longtime Dallas public relations professional. “It was the right combination of food and fun.”

            The group was something called the Southern Foodways Alliance, and Hyman was attending the annual meeting in Oxford, Miss. Hyman, who grew up in Mississippi with a proper appreciation of grits and greens, couldn’t believe an organization existed that honored that combination — as well as all of the other things that make Southern food what it is.

            But it does exist, and as a convert to Southern food (I didn’t even know what a grit or green was until I was out of college, yet have belonged to the SFA almost since it started), I understand what Hyman is talking about. The alliance is one of those things that fills a niche that you don’t think about until it’s too late, and then wonder why there wasn’t something or someone around to help with that problem.

That’s because southern cooking is this country’s only real regional cuisine, and the SFA’s goal is to honor it, preserve it and pass along its traditions before they disappear in the maze of fast food restaurants, celebrity chef recipes, and processed grocery store products that dominate the American table these days. Says Hyman: “We are in danger of losing just these kinds of foods. When I travel, I love to eat at places that typify the foods of the area. But those places are getting harder and harder to find.”

The alliance provides a service and offers insight and wisdom even to those who don’t think southern food applies to them. Which includes Texas, by the way, despite much disagreement among Southerners about whether Texas is part of the South. Rod Davis, who grew up in Dallas, traveled around the country as a newspaper and magazine editor and today lives in Casa Linda, was on the committee that originally came up with the idea for the SFA in the mid-1990s, and he has never understood why there is any such disagreement. “It’s not just about food, but about food, culture and society,” he says.

Indeed it is. Southern food is more than grits and greens, though that’s part of it. It’s about food that tastes like it’s supposed to taste, about using fresh ingredients, and about using seasonal ingredients only in season. It’s about using food to bring people together, as corny as that sounds — whether it’s the modern American family or something even larger. Leah Chase, the doyenne of New Orleans’ Dooky Chase restaurant, once told the group: “There is no greater way of knowing a person than to know their food. It talks to you about who you are and what you are.”

Hence the membership, which not only includes chefs, food writers, restaurant owners and academics, but regular people who appreciate food, like Lakewood’s Mac and June Leftwich. There are two events a year — the symposium in Oxford in the fall, which is a little more academic (those people can really argue about okra), and a summer field trip to a Southern city with an outstanding food tradition; Nashville last year, Charleston this year. I’m trying to talk them into a trip to Dallas to delve into Tex-Mex, actually.

In this respect, the SFA is a lot like the Slow Foods movement (and we have one of those in Dallas that does good work), but more focused — and, frankly, more subversive. You can end up sitting in a Nashville juke joint at 9 on a Saturday morning, eating fried sweet potato pies cooked by 88-year-old E.W. Mayo, who is a local legend for his sweet potato pies, and it all seems perfectly normal. About the only thing missing is the champagne.

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