Chefs, academics, and foodies gather at the Atlantic World Foodways Conference

On the weekend of February 1st, there was something in the air in Greensboro–not just the aroma of gourmet food or the chatter of academics discussing cultural exchange, but an electric excitement. Chefs, researchers, reporters, professors, and foodies had all come together and found their tribe at the Atlantic World Foodways Conference.

Atlantic world research is an interdisciplinary area of study that examines the transatlantic exchange in areas rimming the Atlantic ocean, including the east coasts of the Americas, the west coasts of Africa, and Europe. UNCG’s Atlantic World Research Network (AWRN) was established in 2004 to promote research in this area, and Atlantic World Foodways was the seventh conference they have presented in ten years.The conference drew over 300 participants, ranging from professional chefs to expert scholars to a correspondent from National Geographic. Everyone had gathered to share their knowledge about cultural and culinary exchange across the Atlantic world.

Dr. David Shields (center) is a professor at the University of South Carolina at Columbia and a leading food scholar in the Southeast.

The Atlantic World Foodways conference consisted of lectures, panels, and tastings on African, Carolina Lowcountry, Italian, and Spanish/Latin American foodways. Each style of food was represented by scholars of the subject as well as a distinguished professional chef.

Sean Brock, a Virginia native and recipient of the 2010 James Beard “Best Chef in the Southeast” award, expressed the Lowcountry/African palate with a meal that included Oyster Stew, Gumbo, and pickled Turnip roots. Chef Gabriele Grigolon, an Italian native and winner of the Cordon d’Or of Monaco, cooked up carpaccio, butternut squash tortelli, and crusted rainbow trout. Kernersville Chef Tim Bocholis, the 2012 “Fire in the Triad” winner, served a Latin lunch menu of seafood soup, grilled lamb and stuffed peppers. Each of these visiting chefs worked closely with either Chef Jay Pierce or Chef Leigh Hesling at the Proximity and O.Henry Hotels.

More than chopping, simmering and serving went into these meals. Planning for the foodways conference began back in 2011, when the members of AWRN gathered to discuss what their next conference should revolve around.

“Professor Anthony Fragola from the Media Studies Department expressed his interested in exploring transatlantic foodways,” explained Dr. Christopher Hodgkins, the director of AWRN. “And so we thought, of couse, of Italian and Spanish and Latin cuisines. Then we also began thinking about our own region, the food that we are known for here in the Southeast, and found Lowcountry cooking with its strong African influences.”

Dr. Jessica B. Harris (center), a culinary historian and professor at Queens College, was a keynote speaker and panelist.

According to Dr. Hodgkins, the key to the conference’s success was the diversity of its contributors. “There are all kinds of food conferences or conventions that are only attended by gourmets, chefs, and restaurateurs. Then there are occasional academic gatherings that focus on food. But they don’t get together very often or talk to each other.”

UNCG graduate assistant and conference coordinator Megan Latta agreed. “It was great to meet so many interesting people from a wide range of specialties. Sometimes it feels like academics can get in little bubbles based on our topics, but this had a lot of variety.”

Latta and a team of other graduate assistants were essential in the planning and logistics of the conference, organizing food orders, tech equipment, and room reservations. Ultimately, she came away with not only experience in organizing an academic conference but also with a new and expanded interest in food. “There are several new books and cookbooks on my to-read list.”

The Atlantic Foodways Conference drew many local foodies and sponsors, such as The Fresh Market. The grocery business, which focuses on providing fresh and quality items, made it’s start in Greensboro, growing over the past 30 years into a national chain. They provided enthusiastic support, pledging $10,000 to the conference and sponsoring the three featured chefs. After the conference, The Fresh Market, also hosted a “Meet the Chefs” event for the featured guests at their flagship store on Lawndale Drive. Other essential contributors included the Quaintance-Weaver hotels and Kotis Properties. The Proximity and O’Henry provided rooms and kitchen and restaurant spaces for the weekend.

The final panel of the conference, “Meeting and Eating around the Transatlantic Table,” featured Chef Gabriele Grigolon, Chef Sean Brock, Dr. David Shields, Author Dr. Maricel Presilla, Dr. Jessica B. Harris, and Chef Timothy Bocholis.

“Fully two-thirds of the expenses were paid by non-university sources,” said Dr. Hodgkins. The interest of external sponsors widened awareness of the conference in professional, service, and culinary communities, drawing unlikely participants from across the country. “It became a kind of pleasant synergy, because the more they heard about who else was going to be there, the more people wanted to come.”

After the resounding success of the conference, many of the contributors and sponsors expressed an interest in participating in a follow-up event. Dr. Hodgkins and his colleagues are open to it, but right now they are simply enjoying the satisfaction of pulling off such a fulfilling event.

The most rewarding part for Dr. Hodgkins? “Just seeing the whole thing come together, experiencing individuals who came away from it saying, ‘I loved this, I want to do this again, you’ve stimulated my thinking in ways I couldn’t have imagined’…and its fun too!”

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Article author Mary McLean is a Media and Communication Intern with the UNCG Office of Research and Economic Development. She researches and writes articles about the on and off campus impacts of UNCG research. Mary is a sophomore at UNCG, majoring in English and minoring in Media Studies. Her interest in journalism and communication led her to her current position.

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